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Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old Californian who moved to Oregon last year so she could end her life instead of facing the last stages of brain cancer, got her political revenge this week.
That's the reality in the news coverage. That’s because -- unless you’ve been living under a rock somewhere -- California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill making assisted suicide legal. Which opened the gates to this controversial personal or family choice to some 38 million people overnight.
And the Los Angeles Times reporter who covered it did a great job of making the religion angle front and center. That is, the Catholic governor of the country’s most populous state did something totally against his religion, but readers got to learn about how that decision played out. Start reading here:Caught between conflicting moral arguments, Gov. Jerry Brown, a former Jesuit seminary student, signed a measure Monday allowing physicians to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who want to hasten their deaths.Brown appeared to struggle in deciding whether to approve the bill, whose opponents included the Catholic Church.“In the end, I was left to reflect on what I would want in the face of my own death,” Brown wrote in a signing message. “I do not know what I would do if I were dying in prolonged and excruciating pain. I am certain, however, that it would be a comfort to be able to consider the options afforded by this bill. And I wouldn’t deny that right to others.”
After explaining some provisions of the End of Life Option Act and placing a quote by its opponents quite high in the story, the reporter swung back to Brown, who said he had weighed the religious arguments.Brown said Monday that he carefully considered input from doctors, including two of his own, a Catholic bishop and advocates for the disabled, as well as pleas from the family of Brittany Maynard, a cancer victim who took her own life. He said he also considered input favoring the bill from retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu.“I have considered the theological and religious perspectives that any deliberate shortening of one’s life is sinful,” he wrote.
Notice the reporter cited a Catholic bishop and then, a sentence later, input from Desmond Tutu, a retired progressive Anglican bishop who favored the bill. It's important that the writer didn’t note that Tutu is not Catholic, which may have confused some readers.
The newspaper ran the full text of Brown’s statement in this sidebar. The newspaper also ran a video on Angie Bloomquist, a woman living a miserable existence because of ALS and who had filed a lawsuit to protect doctors who prescribe lethal doses to mentally capable adults who have incurable conditions.
The Times reminded readers that Maynard had taped an appeal to California lawmakers last year asking them to grant other Californians an end-of-life option that she did not have. She also spoke with the governor days before she died, so undoubtedly, Brown’s decision less than a year after her Nov. 1, 2014, assisted suicide was a major victory for Maynard’s family and the group Compassion and Choices, a group with roots back to the old Hemlock Society.
Supporters of the bill packaged the last month of her life with gripping videos and a media campaign. The group’s website proclaimed “Victory!” upon Brown signing the bill. Check their Facebook page for birthday wishes to Tutu and a thanks to the archbishop for his part in helping to pass the California law.
I looked at how other outlets covered this. KTLA, a Los Angeles TV station, led with LA Archbishop Jose Gomez opposing the bill. It also included footage from a Hispanic activist who opposed the bill, saying the poor will feel pressured to end their lives because of the cost of their care. The San Francisco Chronicle also brought up the governor-as-former-Jesuit-seminarian angle, adding that he once worked with Mother Teresa in India to comfort the dying.
The Sacramento Bee also put the faith angle up high, adding this fascinating paragraph midway down:Like many Catholic Democrats, Brown breaks with the church on abortion rights and same-sex marriage, and he typically demurs when asked to discuss his own religious practices.While in Vatican City for climate talks this summer, Brown said, “You’d have to say I’m a rather independent thinker in both political and religious matters, but I am steeped in the tradition of the Catholic Church and the Jesuit order.”Yet the doctor-assisted death bill, which the Legislature passed on the final day of this year’s session, arose amid increasing focus on the church. Brown employed Pope Francis’ encyclical on climate change to rally support for his own greenhouse gas reduction efforts, and the pope’s visit to the United States came as Brown weighed physician-assisted death.
The one downer was CNN’s version, which cut out all mention of Brown’s faith struggles despite Brown’s statement being combed with faith references. Unfortunately this is not the first time CNN has cut the God part out of the story as we at GetReligion have pointed out. Once again, someone at the Atlanta-based network had to work really had at excising religion from a story.
Next to their story, CNN ran an interview with Christy O'Donnell, a California woman with Stage IV lung cancer. O'Donnell said that in her extensive research into right-to-die legislation, she'd never seen it abused.
However, one only needs to do a search for "children" and "Belgium" and "euthanasia" to come up with pieces such as this one that cover Belgium allowing seriously ill kids 12 years and over to kill themselves. None of the media I perused for this post mentioned how euthanasia in Holland has morphed into involuntary euthanasia, the killing of severely handicapped newborns and so on.
I do hope reporters dig beyond the Gov. Brown agonistes angle to analyze the smash-hit success of Compassion and Choices efforts to influence this bill and their use of Maynard as a willing poster child for this movement. No one seems ask about Maynard's insistence on only talking with national media (to this day her family still hasn't deigned to be interviewed by the Oregonian), or wonder who planned all the videos that were aired in the weeks before her death. Maynard's final days were sold as a convincing drama to a nation that couldn't get enough. I'd like a behind-the-scenes look as to how that was done.
I'd also like someone to look into whether the activist on KTLA's video was correct in his claims that the poor will feel pressured to end their lives. Is he right or wrong? The bill that the governor signed is only the beginning of this story.
Is the Religion Guy the only American who’s already sick of the constant news reports on political polls, and yet can’t help following them because this may be the most aberrant campaign since 1860?
Polls can be interesting but also problematic, as discussed in the Sept. 8 Memo “Are polls about people and pews appealing or appalling? Warnings for journalists.” That item scanned complaints from Princeton’s Robert Wuthnow, one of the leading U.S. sociologists of religion, in a new book: “Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and the Tenuous Quest for a Nation’s Faith” (Oxford University Press, published October 1).
Wuthnow asserts that polling in general is increasingly slippery, largely because response rates are so low that it’s impossible to know whether results are representative. He also thinks religion is an especially tricky field for opinion surveying and that media reports about results can distort public perceptions.
Following up, the sort of material reporters can pursue is seen in an interview with Wuthnow by Andrew Aghapour, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for religiondispatches.org. (This online magazine is well worth monitoring if you’re not familiar with it. Editor Diane Winston, Ph.D., associate professor at U.S.C.’s Annenberg School, was a well-regarded Godbeat toiler in Raleigh, Baltimore, and Dallas.)
Wuthnow cites Jimmy Carter’s presidential win in 1976, which media dubbed the “year of the evangelical.” Actually it was the year some media suddenly discovered evangelicalism.
At the time, George Gallup Jr. asked a battery of questions on religious experience and concluded U.S. evangelicals might number 50 million, far above prior totals based on formal church memberships. Evangelical leaders themselves doubted the number. Gallup later revised this to less than 30 million based upon a 1978 survey for Christianity Today magazine. Subsequent political polling of huge samples by Pew Research has provided more solid estimates about this large and complex movement.
Wuthnow also notes that the media implied evangelicals were a voting bloc akin to Catholics who voted for Kennedy in 1960, also a distortion. The involvement of some vocal evangelicals with the “religious right” compounded the problem. Yet Wuthnow admits the perception of an evangelical surge, though exaggerated by questionable polling, was and is an actual phenomenon.
He also makes the interesting claim that for technical reasons the “polling industry” tends to better reflect trends among America’s white majority than African-Americans, who by most measures rank higher over-all in worship attendance and personal religiosity.
Journalists should take note of this sociologist’s advice:
Be skeptical about overheated headlines because “polling usually doesn’t produce news” in the sense that “something really happened” but editors will devise “some way to make it seem like news.”
Polls provide “ballpark” numbers that are not precise, especially on small trends. Pay little attention to ups and downs of a few percentage points.
Again, beware of thin response rates, often dipping as low as 8 percent, and consider the “margin of error” that can wipe out supposed statistical differences.
Remember that pollsters’ techniques can be judged and improved by actual election results when they deal with politics. However, “with religion questions they don’t have anything like that.”
Regarding religion questions, keep in mind that an individual respondent may give totally different answers a year later.
So the pope's quiet little tour of the deep blue zip codes in North America's media corridor is done and now, largely behind closed doors, the 2015 Synod of Bishops in Rome is up and running.
If you read the headlines, this gathering is essentially about the moral status of homosexual relationships, attempts to modernize church teachings on divorce and, oh yeah, there is that whole family crisis thing that Pope Francis has been talking about so much (cue: yawns in offices of elite editors).
There are huge, complex topics on the docket at the Vatican right now and reporters, sitting outside the closed doors, are doing what they can to follow the action.
Naturally, one of them is Vatican veteran John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux. We give him a lot of ink around here because, frankly, he produces a lot of ink and many of this analysis pieces contain more on-the-record information than other scribes' hard-news features. And every now and then he writes something really unusual, showing readers what is going on in his mind as he looks at the bigger picture.
Consider the Crux essay that just ran under this headline: "Pope Francis is playing with house money in betting on the 2015 Synod."
The basic thesis, as I read it, is that Pope Francis is letting lots of loud, even tense, debates play out -- because he knows that in the end he has the only vote that matters. Does that sound like the "people's pope"? Meanwhile, it seems that the "teflon pope" strategy is evidence that Francis believes he can live in his own papal narrative, in part because -- at this point -- the mainstream press remains convinced that he is steering his church toward compassionate, pastoral "reform" -- which means changing many of those bad doctrines.
This led to a series of very blunt tweets from Ross Douthat of The New York Times, who is both an active Catholic and a doctrinal conservative:October 7, 2015
Per Allen, the synod may lead to "heartache and acrimony, with ... Catholics at the grassroots left dazed and confused" ...— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 7, 2015
... but @pontifex feels he can roll the dice because his media teflon and "political capital" are sufficient that he'll come out unscathed.— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 7, 2015
There are many terms for that kind of politician's bet, but I'm not sure "pastoral" is one of them.— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) October 7, 2015
What did Allen say to inspire all of that?
Well, for one thing he has drawn yet another comparison between the work of Pope Francis and (hisses in the press gallery) Pope Benedict XVI. Yet this time there is a different pope wearing the humble shoes. This is long, but important. Read it all.At different moments in their respective papacies, each has faced criticism for a move with regard to a previously little-known bishop. The controversies involved two chronic sources of anguish for the Catholic Church -- its record on anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the case of Benedict, and its reaction to the clergy sexual abuse scandals for Francis.In 2009, Benedict lifted the excommunications of four traditionalist bishops, including one, Richard Williamson, with a history as a Holocaust denier. That decision sparked global outrage and became a front-page story for weeks, deepening impressions of Benedict as out of touch and insensitive to public opinion.The outcry became so intense that two months later, Benedict released an unprecedented letter to the bishops of the world, apologizing for mishandling the affair and revealing how isolated he was from information anyone could find easily on the Internet.
Whoa. And what about Pope Francis?Flash forward to 2015, when Pope Francis named a new bishop for the diocese of Osorno in Chile who critics believe covered up crimes by his country’s most notorious abuser priest. The appointment triggered protests in Chile and objections from some of the pontiff’s own advisors on anti-abuse efforts, but has had little echo anywhere else.Francis hasn’t responded with a heartfelt mea culpa like Benedict, but with defiance.In a five-month-old video, Francis is heard telling an employee of the Chilean bishops’ conference that people criticizing his move are being “led around by the nose by leftists,” and that the country has “lost its head.”While the substance of the two situations may be very different, the potential for backlash is eerily similar. Just imagine what the reaction would have been had Benedict blamed his own woes on “leftists,” and you’ll understand the difference between the narratives the two pontiffs carry around.
All of this raises an interesting question, for those of us who are currently not encamped in Rome (where we can assume that the rates for short-term housing are even higher than normal). When it comes to the 2015 synod, what news and commentary sites are you following?
I can think of a few right off the top of my head. Obviously there's Allen and his team at Crux. I cannot find an all-inclusive synod URL, but it isn't hard to follow the synod stuff based on the headlines. There's a synod blog at the Catholic News Service. When it comes to official documents, there's the Vatican press office and, with some commentary, the work of Rocco Palmo at Whispers in the Loggia.
On the doctrinal left, any list of heavy hitters would include The National Catholic Reporter synod blog and the Religion News Service links for the work of columnist and blogger David Gibson. The Dispatches blog at America is carrying lots of synod material.
On the doctrinal right, its easy to follow the Letters from the Synod postings at First Things. There is a mixture of news and commentary at the Catholic News Agency, The National Catholic Register (with a dozen blogs) and, in England, the blog of Xavier Rynne II at The Catholic Herald.
There are many, many, many others. So who are you reading? Please leave us some URLs in the comments pages.
Is it just me, or does media coverage of that evangelical seminar on homosexuality and transgenderism seem to be all about the protesters?
In fact, USA Today — for a while — had this whopper of a headline:October 6, 2015
What's wrong with that headline? It's totally inaccurate.
Gay therapy is not the focus of the seminar, and organizers spoke out against that approach, as we noted the other day.
The seminar drew 2,300 church-based counselors, but are they the focus of USA Today's lede (the report is an edited version of a story that first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, a Gannett sister paper)?
Apparently, the conference is only news because a few people showed up to protest it.
USA Today did change its headline to this:Activists protests Baptists' seminar on homosexuality
Meanwhile, Religion News Service provides coverage with no shortage of scare quotes:(RNS) Evangelical leaders spoke out against “reparative” mental health therapy for LGBT people Tuesday (Oct. 6) but still called on them to “change,” saying that only through faith in Jesus could they find “wholeness and holiness.”The Association of Certified Biblical Counselors and the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, meeting this week at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., the flagship school of the Southern Baptist Convention, have been under fire from LGBT activists for failing to condemn reparative therapy, sometimes also called “conversion” therapy. ...
Dozens of activists from the Fairness Campaign, a Louisville LGBT advocacy group, have been demonstrating near the campus, saying reparative therapy increases the rate of depression and suicide in the LGBT community and objecting to religious calls to “change.”
In a joint press conference Tuesday, the Rev. Albert Mohler, president of the seminary, and Heath Lambert, ACBC executive director, said psychological therapy, including reparative therapy, is a “superficial” response to the “struggle” people face in dealing with same-sex attraction and transgender identity.
A joint statement later released by Mohler and Lambert still used the language of “change” and “repair” for LGBT people who, Mohler said, can only find “wholeness and holiness” through faith in Jesus.
While referencing the "dozens of activists," RNS neglects to mention the thousands of seminar attendees.
In response to inquiries from GetReligion, James A. Smith Sr., the seminary's chief spokesman, lamented:(O)nly because 40 people showed up to protest a gathering of more than 2,000 did the news media regard the meeting as news worthy — even with 2,000 people gathered to deliberate on already controversial issues of transgenderism (a first-ever evangelical conference on such) and homosexuality (explicitly rejecting the reparative therapy approach). This, in microcosm, is what's wrong with religion news coverage.
What say ye, GetReligion readers? Agree? Disagree?
As always, please remember that this website is focused on journalism and media coverage, so focus your comments on those areas, not your beliefs concerning homosexuality or transgenderism.
It's hard to write a post about news stories that do not yet exist. However, based on the emails I'm getting, I expect to see major newsrooms writing about "this story" sooner rather than later. Do we really have to talk about religion "ghosts" in Syria?
So what is "this story"?
Look for up-front use of the term "Holy War" in connection with Russia's involvement in Syria, where President Vladimir Putin is doing everything he can to save the territory most crucial to President Bashar al-Assad -- which certainly starts with Damascus. I expect prominent play to be given to the supporting role of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Kirill, for reasons that our own Ira Rifkin mentioned in one of his "Global Wire" pieces the other day.
At the moment, your typical religion-haunted story on Russia's push into the Syria war focuses on politics, airplanes and hardware and the assumption that Putin is acting purely out of motives to maintain a power base in the Middle East and embarrass the United States and President Barack Obama. Please hear me say that there obviously truth in that assumption. In a current New York Times story, this is what that sounds like:Although in its early stages, the coordinated attack has revealed the outline of a newly deepened and operationally coordinated alliance among Syria, Iran, Russia and the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to an official with the alliance, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss military strategy. ...For Mr. Assad’s supporters and opponents alike, regionally and internationally, Russia’s increasing willingness to throw its full military power behind him is a game-changer.
But might there be religious logic to Putin's bold move, even if -- thinking cynically -- it is at the level of rationalization?
Just the other day, a Times story -- "Russian Soldiers Join Syria Fight" -- added a very brief reference to another layer of the conflict, well down into that text. Spot the ghost?
In this quote, the term "insurgent factions" is used to describe the groups -- not the Islamic State -- fighting in opposition to Assad.Forty-one insurgent factions said in a statement that Russia’s “brutal occupation has cut the road to any political solution,” the latest challenge to diplomatic efforts by a special United Nations envoy, Staffan de Mistura.Separately, in a statement laden with sectarian language, a group of prominent Saudi Arabian clerics called on Muslim and Arab countries to support a jihad, or holy war, against Mr. Assad and his Russian and Iranian patrons -- even comparing the Syrian war to the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and the jihad against it that drew fighters from around the world.The statement followed a declaration from the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, blessing the Russian fight in Syria.
The reference to Patriarch Kirill refers to the following, which drew coverage from Agence France-Presse:Russia’s powerful Orthodox Church on Wednesday voiced support for Moscow’s decision to carry out air strikes in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, calling it a “holy battle.” ...
The Patriarch, who often weighs in on political matters in support of the Kremlin, said armed intervention was necessary since “the political process has not led to any noticeable improvement in the lives of innocent people, and they need military protection.” He cited the suffering of Christians in the region, the kidnapping of clerics and the destruction of churches, adding that Muslims “are suffering no less.”
Church spokesman Chaplin said that the decision on military action “corresponds with international law, the mentality of our people and the special role that our country has always played in the Middle East.”
The situation on the ground is so complex that many Americans may not realize that the U.S. backed factions have, in the past, been almost as hostile to the region's ancient Christian communities as the armies of the Islamic State. For several years now, Orthodox Christians (my own church, of course) have been praying for the safety of two bishops kidnapped by insurgents fighting against Assad, including the al-Qaeda linked al-Nusra Front. Some of these insurgents are now supported with U.S. aid.
You want more complications? That highly unstable and complex collection of 41 anti-Assad insurgent groups has also declared its opposition to ISIS, which poses the ultimate long-range threat to Christians and other surviving religious minorities in Iraq and Syria. And the Saudis? As this Reuters story noted:Riyadh's state-affiliated clergy have already termed the war a jihad for Syrians, but they have also denounced Islamic State and al Qaeda and said that Saudi citizens must not go abroad to fight or give the rebels money except via government channels. ...Their letter, which used sectarian terms for both Iran and Assad's Alawite sect, a Shi'ite offshoot, also portrayed Russian involvement as part of an Orthodox Christian crusade, and attacked the West for denying the rebels anti-aircraft weapons."The Western-Russian coalition with the Safavids (Iran) and the Nusairis (Alawites) are making a real war against the Sunni people and their countries," the statement said.
So, what would it take for American journalists to cover "this story," by which I mean Putin's strategic move and the overall threat of extinction of Orthodox, Eastern Catholic and other Christian bodies in what remains of Syria? As I noted in a column several years ago, the Orthodox in the region know all about Assad and they know he is a monster. However, at the moment, there are other monsters who are working harder to crush them, monsters that offer a more immediate threat to their survival.
In that column, I quoted a sermon by Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita, Kan.Anyone who prays for peace in Syria must acknowledge, at the beginning, that "vicious wrongs" have been done on both sides and that "there's really no good armed force over there. No one we can trust. None," concluded Bishop Basil."So the choice is between the evil that we know and that we've had for 30-40 years in that part of the world, or another evil we don't know about except what they've shown us in this awful civil war."
In addition to watching for reactions from the Damascus-based Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East (located on the Street called Straight), and the Russian Orthodox Church, reporters should watch for subtle changes in the language being used by Pope Francis and the Church of Rome. He has spoken strongly about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East. What will he say if Putin becomes their only defender, fighting against both U.S. backed insurgents and ISIS? No one wants to see the horrors of the Nineveh Plain repeated, with more ancient churches and monasteries being ground into rubble, with local believers being killed or driven into the river of refugees.
As The Catholic Herald in England recently stated:The American and British policy of backing a Gulf-sponsored uprising has been either woefully naïve or quite cynically designed to curry favour with the Saudis. There’s something especially sinister about the way our governments have followed a Wahhabi-led scheme to overthrow a secular dictatorship, a revolution that would almost certainly endanger Christians in the land of St Paul.For example, the rebel group al-Nusra Front, one of the players in the region Russia is now pounding, previously overran the Christian village of Maaloula, 40 miles north of Damascus, executing three Christians and kidnapping a dozen nuns before being driven out by the Syrian army.During the battle for that village one Christian addressed the BBC cameraman with these chilling words: “Tell the Europeans and the Americans that we sent you St Paul 2,000 years ago to take you from the darkness, and you sent us terrorists to kill us”.Hey buddy, you’re welcome.
At some point, the ghosts are going to break into the headlines. Watch for "Holy War" language in the headlines.
We've all done it.
You are writing a story about a complex topic -- on religion or some other tough topic -- and you crank out what seems like a perfectly normal summary paragraph. You read over the story several times. So does your editor.
Things look normal. Then a reader sends you an email that basically says, "What the heck were you thinking?" Maybe this reader uses stronger language than that.
So you read said paragraph once again and the scales fall from your eyes. You immediately think, "What the heck was I thinking?" Maybe, silently, you use stronger language than that.
When it comes to religion stuff, GetReligion readers often send us the URLs for stories of this kind. Consider, for example, the following story from The Chicago Tribune. The editorial train wreck in this hard-news story, focusing on a local Catholic scandal, doesn't take place until the very end. Still, here is the top of the story for some context:A popular Roman Catholic priest who attended the pope's address to Congress last month has been removed from ministry because of an "inappropriate relationship with an adult man," the Chicago Archdiocese announced. ...
Chicago Archbishop Blase Cupich removed the Rev. Marco Mercado, rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, withdrawing his authority to minister. The Rev. Adan Sandoval Duron, head of the archdiocese's new Hispanic Council, has been appointed interim administrator, and Mercado will live away from the shrine.
"As a human being I am not perfect, but as a priest my priority has always been the work of the Gospel and the struggle for immigrants and the most vulnerable," Mercado said in a statement. "I pray that this issue is resolved soon, and I ask for your prayers, at the same time that I apologize if this scandal has caused any hardship to the faithful."
Then, near the end, the story links to information about a recent scandal in Rome, when a Polish priest on the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith -- Monsignor Krzysztof Charamsa -- held a press conference saying he is gay and in a relationship with a man. (Click here for my post on that.) The Vatican was not amused, especially since -- as the Tribune story notes -- doing this presser "on the eve of a synod of bishops to discuss family issues was 'grave and irresponsible.' "
This brings us to the final paragraph, focusing on Chicago's archbishop. Read carefully.Cupich is one of eight American delegates at that synod. He has ruled out any changes to the church's teaching regarding gay marriage.
Wait? Everyone knows that the Chicago archdiocese has a lot of clout. But its archbishop -- all by himself -- has the power to make that kind of decision? He has "ruled out any changes to the church's teaching regarding gay marriage"?
Wow. Now that is some stunning news. I think there are some crucial words missing from that particular paragraph.
You know when mainstream media get interested in the Scriptures? When they have a chance to use a phrase like "biblical flood" over and over -- as several did in coverage of the disastrous flooding in South Carolina.
But that doesn't mean they’ll acknowledge where they got the phrase, or fill in any background. The shock value is more important than the power source of the words and concepts that provide the shock.
So we get USA Today with this mostly leaden lede:The biblical flooding in South Carolina is at least the sixth so-called 1-in-1,000 year rain event in the U.S. since 2010, a trend that may be linked to factors ranging from the natural, such as a strong El Niño, to the man-made, namely climate change.
The Minneapolis Tribune piggybacks off USA Today with its own catchword headline, " 'Sept-ober' Weather Bliss Lingers -- Biblical Floods in South Carolina -- 6 Separate 1-in-1,000 Year Rains, Nationwide, Since 2010.' "
And another headline in a website called Celebcafe offers "a few unreal photos of South Carolina's biblical floods," even though the word "biblical" doesn't appear in the article itself.
But by now, reporters or editors are just tossing in "biblical" enroute to what word play and imagery really interests them. Mashable mentions "biblical rains and historic flooding in South Carolina this week," although the story is mainly about floating rafts of fire ants.
The American Press of Lake Charles, La., worked the term today into a sports story, about plans for an LSU-South Carolina game.
"[T]hey’re going to have themselves a game, come hell or more high water," writer Scooter Hobbs snickers. "The South Carolina capital is suffering through Biblical flooding at the moment, but never mind. A conference game is going to get played."
By the way, the Associate Press Stylebook says that the first letter in "biblical" is lower case. Just saying.
Slate does some lengthy reporting, but largely for the sermonette headline: "How Many 'Biblical' Floods Will It Take For the World to Address Climate Change?"
Even the venerable Smithsonian got into the act, with an article that reads like a 700-word ad about a new kind of concrete that drains faster than most. Yet it still opens with: "As Hurricane Joaquin and several other weather systems pounded the Eastern Seaboard, coastal communities have been faced with Biblical levels of rain."
Have you noticed something odd about these reports? They're all from media outside South Carolina, and they don’t quote any actual people using the word "biblical." Only a very few reports have.
I found a very early exception -- Thursday, Oct. 1 -- in The Herald in Rock Hill, S.C.: "Flood watch issued for Rock Hill area, storm prep begins before possible ‘biblical’ hit from Hurricane Joaquin." Then the lede says:Emergency personnel are preparing for what one official said could be a “biblical” rainfall of up to 8 inches in York, Chester and Lancaster counties from late Friday through the weekend as Hurricane Joaquin barrels up the East Coast.
Later, the story quotes Ed Darby, an emergency planner -- “We can handle 3 inches, but 8 inches is biblical" -- proving that the newspaper didn’t just make it up.
Few other mainstream media followed suit, as we've seen. One is The Huffington Post, which quotes a blog item by Frank Knapp Jr., head of the state's Small Business Chamber of Commerce. In the item, he quotes Gov. Nikki Haley warning that "many people will believe that this was simply a freak, almost Biblical act of nature that we will probably never see again. This is simply not the case and we do a disservice to the public by giving them false hope."
The New York Times, too, gets the word in a quote while telling a gripping story about efforts of the Charleston County Volunteer Rescue Squad. Here's Brian Hinton, the deputy chief of the squad: “I’ll put it this way: For us, this is a biblical event. This is a historical-type deal.”
The Times also tells of a biblical self-sacrifice of the rescuers, although it's not identified as such: "The rescuers had been called out to help people who found themselves stranded through no fault of their own, as well as others who had put themselves at risk."
But all of the above stories lack one ingredient: background on the idea of a "biblical" flood.
Nothing on the deluge story in Genesis.
No mention of Noah or the Ark.
Nothing on the many flood legends worldwide, some of them predating the Bible itself.
Is that kind of factual information too trivial to add? Does everyone already know this stuff? I would say no -- not when story after story, year after year, has documented the ignorance of many Americans about the Bible. Not when Southern Baptist scholar Al Mohler complained about it a decade ago, and when George Barna reports that "In just two years, the percentage of Americans who qualify as 'post-Christian' rose by 7 percentage points, from 37% in 2013 to 44% in 2015."
Yes, it's Old School journalism to spice up a story with cultural, literary or biblical references. But when many don’t read the book, it's foolish to think everyone gets it. And when many in the Old School are being laid off -- including religion writers, as my colleague Julia Duin recently reported -- it looks hollow to feign interest in a specialty that many editors clearly don’t care about.
Follow the money.
Adhering to that old journalistic adage pays off for Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Jennifer Berry Hawes in yet another rock-solid story on Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.
This time, Hawes' coverage concerns not the faith nor the forgiving nature of a black congregation devastated by a white gunman's attack on a Wednesday Bible study.
Rather, the projects writer for The Post and Courier, Charleston's daily newspaper, digs into the touchy subject of church finances:In the weeks after a suspected white racist gunned down nine worshippers in Charleston’s historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, applause for the Rev. Norvel Goff Sr. swelled as talk of forgiveness inspired mourners nationwide.Praise poured in — even mention of the Nobel Peace Prize — along with millions of dollars in donations to Emanuel AME Church and the families of the victims.But others are coming forward to paint a much different picture of the man named interim pastor and now overseeing how the donations are doled out.Across Goff’s path of past churches, from New York to Columbia to Charleston, accusations of poor financial oversight swirl amid lingering questions about how he is handling the huge pot of donations at Emanuel AME.Among them, a woman who served as secretary to the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, slain pastor of Emanuel AME, said she was terminated after raising concerns about the oversight of incoming donations.And several members of Goff’s most recent church, Reid Chapel AME in Columbia, contend their former pastor took out large mortgages against the church without proper permission while amassing federal and state tax liens that reached $200,000.Similarly, the pastor who succeeded Goff at his previous church, Baber AME in Rochester, N.Y., said Goff also left it saddled with debt and hard feelings among members.
After that broad introduction, Hawes methodically presents the facts and accusations in a 2,700-word investigative piece that is both hard-hitting and fair.
Readers can draw their own conclusions after reviewing the evidence — including court documents — and hearing from attorneys, church members and the embattled pastor himself.
The Post and Courier repeatedly gives Goff an opportunity to respond — in his own words — to the claims against him:But Goff strongly defended his ministerial record and told The Post and Courier on Friday that he hopes to announce within 10 days how money addressed to victims’ families will be dispersed. At that time, he will discuss how much the community donated to the families and to the church itself.Goff, who was promoted to become the area’s presiding elder less than a year ago, said church leaders have worked diligently to address questions following the loss of nearly all of Mother Emanuel’s ministry staff in the massacre.“We are confident that we’ll be able to have accountability and transparency,” he said. “The public has a right to know about our movements.”
Alas, it's not shocking that Goff himself takes issue with the story. He held a news conference today to defend himself, as noted in these tweets by Mitch Pugh, The Post and Courier's executive editor:
Goff: taking issue with how his role at Mother Emanuel was described. Calls @postandcourier story "fiction" and full of "lies."— Mitch Pugh (@SCMitchP) October 7, 2015
Goff says story had no facts despite several documents and legal filings that were obtained and reviewed by @postandcourier.— Mitch Pugh (@SCMitchP) October 7, 2015
Goff now says he has all documentation to prove he did everything properly. But he refused to share that with @postandcourier reporter.— Mitch Pugh (@SCMitchP) October 7, 2015
Goff says @postandcourier had no documents to support story. That is flat out false.— Mitch Pugh (@SCMitchP) October 7, 2015
Goff says reporter failed to do thorough job reporting this story. Again, she talked to him in depth 4-5 times over a series of weeks.— Mitch Pugh (@SCMitchP) October 7, 2015
For an update on the story, read this follow-up to Hawes' front-page Sunday piece:October 7, 2015
From the beginning, we have praised Hawes' strong, sensitive coverage of Emanuel AME:June 23, 2015 July 2, 2015 July 21, 2015 September 10, 2015
The inspirational, restore-faith-in-humanity nature of Hawes' past narratives highlighted her remarkable storytelling ability.
This latest coverage reminds us that the best journalists — count Hawes among them — understand the importance of reporting the good, the bad and the ugly.
By following the money, Hawes and The Post and Courier deliver the goods.
If you follow religion news at the global level, then you know that the Internet era has led to the rise of many alternative wire services, most of which produce news stories that are mixed with material advocating the views of the sponsors.
You can take the advocacy stuff or leave it. What matters to journalists is whether the editors of this material have a reputation for getting their facts right when to comes to dates, names, institutions and sources.
You see, the issue isn't whether these "news reports" can be printed in the mainstream press. The issue is whether there is material in them that mainstream journalists can verify and use as the starting point for their own independent reporting.
The Assyrian International News Agency is one such wire service and it is especially crucial to us (I am an Eastern Orthodox layman) with a special interest in the horrors that continue to unfold for Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East. Here is a chunk of a recent AINA report:Twelve Christians have been brutally executed by the Islamic State, including the 12-year-old son of a Syrian ministry team leader who had planted nine churches, because they refused to renounce the name of Jesus Christ and embrace Islam. The martyrs were faithful to the very end; right before one woman was beheaded by the terror group, she appeared to be smiling slightly as she said, "Jesus!"According to Christian Aid Mission, a humanitarian group which assists indigenous Christian workers in their native countries, the horrific murders took place on August 28 in an unnamed village outside Aleppo, Syria."In front of the team leader and relatives in the crowd, the Islamic extremists cut off the fingertips of the boy and severely beat him, telling his father they would stop the torture only if he, the father, returned to Islam," Christian Aid revealed, according to a report from Morning Star News. "When the team leader refused, relatives said, the ISIS militants also tortured and beat him and the two other ministry workers. The three men and the boy then met their deaths in crucifixion."They were killed for refusing to return to Islam after embracing Christianity, as were the other eight aid workers, including two women, according to Christian Aid. The eight were taken to a separate site in the village and asked if they would return to Islam. However, after they refused to renounce Christ, the women, ages 29 and 33, were raped before the crowd summoned to watch, and then all eight were beheaded.
So here is the crucial journalism question: What is the sourcing here?
It appears that there are mission agency personnel who are reading reports claiming information from inside Islamic State territory, most of it drawn from church leaders and converts who have refused to flee in the face of persecution.
Would any mainstream media report this information as it is?
Of course not. However, if you follow the work of journalists who are trying to find information sources inside the Islamic State -- see this post about a Washington Post report on ISIS and women -- you know that they are starting with similar sources.
Humanitarian groups and researchers -- secular and religious -- still have some sources of information in country, including contacts on the ground. They are reaching them through social media and satellite communications.
So the question is whether journalists consider reports of this kind worthy of follow-up work, leading to reports in mainstream media. Got news?
It would appear not. If you run an online search for logical terms linked to this report you get the usual collection of religious news sites, plus an aggregation piece in The Daily Mail. Apparently, ISIS needs to do more than torture women and children and behead members of religious minorities in order to be considered newsworthy.
But stop and think about this for a minute: Considering the demographics of North America, wouldn't there be quite a few news consumers who are interested in what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East? To be perfectly tacky about it, wouldn't this be a subject that would lead to some online traffic?
Yes, I know that readers today are more interested in culture wars in Kentucky than in beheadings and crucifixions in Syria. Nevertheless, the details of this report are tragically vivid.
In the world of conservative news, Breitbart did a follow up report that plugged into one or two other sources, but seemed to contribute little in the way of fresh reporting. Plus, it's hard to take a report very seriously that adds a fact paragraph that includes at least one rather bizarre statement about Middle East history.The barbaric radical Islamic group has executed more than 11,000 people in “Iraq and Syria since its establishment of a self-proclaimed caliphate in June 2014.” ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in that month. For over 2,000 years, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully with each other. But when ISIS invaded, the Christians were told to either leave, convert, or pay a subjugation tax. They kidnapped the majority of the females to sell on their sex slave market while they slaughtered the males in front of their families.
Say what? I am sure that the countless Christian martyrs in the region through the ages would be shocked to learn that they lived "peacefully" with their Muslim conquerors and rulers for many centuries or even most of those centuries.
Plus, what about that math? How could these groups have peacefully coexisted for 2,000 years if Muhammad was born in about 570 A.D.? Correction please?
I do not know if mainstream journalists could have verified the facts in this particular online report. I don't know if leaders of these faith groups would have trusted mainstream reporters with the names and contact information for their sources inside the Islamic State.
However, I do think it's safe to say that if this information had been published in mainstream media -- let's say in a CNN report or the international news pages of The New York Times -- readers would have reacted.
So why was this topic merely "conservative news"? Isn't this a human-rights story that would be of interest to all?
IMAGE: From ISIS social-media materials. Detail of a crucifixion.
Organized religion can support personal piety very nicely. Ditto when it comes to performing good works. But then there's the flip side. Religion can also serve as a fig leaf for nationalism, political schemes and militarism.
We see this last dynamic at work today primarily within the Islamic world. However, it's certainly not confined to Islam. And its certainly not just a contemporary phenomenon. (Check your Bible, Qur'an or any number of history books about Europe, Asia and the Americas for ample examples.)
Moreover, we know the damage done by these dark-side impulses can linger in religious memories for decades and even centuries. And not just in connection with today's headline grabbers, such as when Islamists refer to Christians as crusaders. They're also there behind the scenes, providing the heat for simmering historical conflicts that can flare up without clear warning.
Take Japan's refusal to fully face up to it's shameful treatment of the so-called "comfort women," a euphemism for the women from occupied nations that World War II-era Japan forced into sexual slavery. (I'll get back to this below.)
What I view as the downside of organized religion is, I'm sure, no surprise to anyone who reads GetReligion.
However, it's always worthwhile to remember how easy it is for organized religions -- as well as the journalists who cover them -- to become part of the the home team cheering squad. That's a compromised position to be in when home team managers are engaged in highly dubious or destructive activities, in the view of others.
A recent example of this popped up just last week when the Russian Orthodox Church lent its support and domestic prestige to President Vladimir Putin's latest military adventures in Syria. That the church backed Putin is no surprise, though it is worthy of being reported as a footnote to the larger story.
Here's a piece on the church's support for Putin's policy from the French news agency Agence France-Presse (AFP) via Yahoo. It includes this interesting sentence:
"The fight with terrorism is a holy battle and today our country is perhaps the most active force in the world fighting it," Vsevolod Chaplin, head of the church's P.R. department, was quoted as saying.
Here's another more analytic take on the situation from The Washington Post's website.
I can imagine the Russian church has many reasons for doing this. For starters, there's the hard-to-argue-with reality that Orthodox Christians continue to be at great risk in Syria from not only the Islamic State (remember their habit of raping and killing those they consider infidels), but from other Muslim militias as well, including some the U.S. looks upon more favorably.
Weak minorities have historically fared poorly in the Middle East, and survival has often meant seeking protection from otherwise odious regimes. Hence, for Syria's Orthodox, and by extension the Russian Orthodox Church in solidarity with its fellow religionists, Assad is the far-lesser evil. It follows that the Russian church would support Putin in supporting Assad. The Orthodox don't want to see another Nineveh Plains bloodbath in Damascus, another ancient center for early Christianity.
Secondly, even if the Russian church disagreed with Moscow's Syria policy, not to support the autocratic Putin -- who has made a public show of embracing Orthodoxy in his bid to enhance his domestic popularity -- would be politically dangerous, perhaps even suicidal.
The church's support surely also results from its central role in shaping Russian Slavic national and personal identity. It's estimated that about 75 percent of Russia's population self-identifies, at least culturally, as Russian Orthodox. That's about 145 million people.
Simply put, the state and the church constitute two parts of the whole that is the prevailing Russian, or at least the Russian elite's, worldview. So why wouldn't the church leadership embrace Putin's Syria strategy? Call it the home-team syndrome.
Now what do Japan and the tragedy of the comfort women have to do with this? Again, it's about religious tradition coinciding with political realities. It's the home team syndrom again, at least according to one observer I'll quote after this next background graph.
South Korea, in particular, but also China, contend that Japan has done far too little to atone for its mistreatment of the women it forced into sexual slavery to service its military forces, as this BBC story points out.
But over at Sightings, a web publication of the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Akiko Yamashita argues that Japan is psychologically unable to apologize further because of constraints imposed by its traditional religious culture
Here's the heart of what Yamashita, a Japanese academic and writer on her nation's religious outlook, as well as an activist on behalf of the comfort women, has to say:Why doesn’t Japan respond to the victims’ demands even under the pressure of the international community? There are several religion-based reasons. In brief:First, given the religious roots of the imperial state ideology that continues to prevail in post-World War II Japan, it is not possible to criticize the emperor’s orders as the head of the Japanese military during the war. When it comes to the emperor, democracy does not function properly.Second, Japanese religious culture disdains the concept of “women’s human rights.”Third, the Imperial system continues its efforts to instill, in the Japanese people, a sense of the Emperor’s special religious status. This system, propped up by taboos, is vulnerable to criticism from the outside and it is too easily inclined to adopt historical revisionism.
So there it is again: religion influencing culture and politics and vice versa, for good but also for bad.
Here in the U.S., we can see this playing out in the presidential campaign and other domestic trends. When looking for valid news hooks, reporters won't go wrong by assuming that, unless proven otherwise, religious issues are a part of just about every international story as well.
Just peel the onion.
Jehovah’s Witnesses are notoriously tough to interview.
They didn’t used to be. Back in the late 1980s while I was on the religion beat at the Houston Chronicle, I arranged for myself and a photographer to follow a team work its way, door by door, through a certain posh neighborhood. Other than the fact they tried to convert me and we got into an argument as to whether Easter should be a Christian festival, it was an enlightening time. I was amazed at how rude people were to these visitors and how many doors were literally slammed in their faces.
But in 2012, when I assigned students in my religion journalism class at the University of Maryland to find a JW team to follow around, I learned that no Witnesses could talk with us now unless their New York headquarters allowed them to. And I could never get anyone from New York to answer my calls.
Which is why this New York Times story of the horrors that Witnesses face when refusing military service in South Korea was a real coup.
No doubt the Witnesses over there talked because they wanted to get word out about how bad things truly are in the Land of the Morning Calm. When reading this story, just take into account that it's unusual to get Witnesses to cooperate much with the media. The article starts out with:SEOUL, South Korea -- Since he was a teenager, Kim Min-hwan knew he would have to make a choice: abandon his religious convictions or go to prison.Mr. Kim is a member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who for decades have faced jail terms as conscientious objectors under South Korea’s Military Service Act. Since his release from prison in 2013, Mr. Kim has found the stigma too great to find a meaningful job, though he was a chemical engineering major. He spends his days volunteering at the Jehovah’s Witnesses headquarters south of Seoul.“I was predestined to become a convict because I believed in the creator,” Mr. Kim, 31, said in an interview. “I want South Korea to recognize that there are other, nonmilitary ways for us to serve the community.”Over the years, Jehovah’s Witnesses have filed a series of appeals asking the Constitutional Court to rule that the Military Service Act violates the constitutional right to freedom of conscience and religion. Hopes for an end to their travails rose in July, when the court held a public hearing on multiple appeals only four years after it had rejected similar petitions. The court is likely to rule on the matter before the end of the year.
One bit thing that’s totally missing from this piece -- believe it or not -- is an explanation of why JWs believe it’s evil to go to war. They are one of the few groups in the world today that literally follow the early church’s prohibitions against armed combat. The Romans conscripted soldiers back then, so it was an issue until the fourth century.
There's more. The article also explains that one of the torments the South Koreans have inflicted on JWs is forcing them to undergo blood transfusions although -- once again -- the Times team doesn’t explain why the religion forbids them. Those of us who cover religion know this, but I’m not sure if the typical New York Times reader is familiar with such doctrinal details.
There is little else to criticize in this piece, as it’s highly readable, has good quotes and brings to light the horrors these believers have endured for decades. It also explains why being a conscientious objector doesn’t fly in Korean society where citizens see themselves as in a perpetual state of war with North Korea, hence no one gets let off of military service.
But there are some interesting holes in this piece that would have could have been filled.
This article is much more about South Korea than it is about the Witnesses. Details about the religion itself were so slight, that you could have substituted any other pacifist group (Quakers, Mennonites) in there and the story would have read the same. One sentence of statistics about JWs in Korea, i.e. how many of them exist in the country (about 100,000) and whether their numbers are growing, would have been helpful.
A report by Fox TV in 2014 said South Korea is the world’s top jailer of conscientious objectors at 600 a year. That is another bit of info that, if still true, would have added more to this story. It's important to give some context. A video on the Witnesses' website says more than 18,000 male Witnesses have been imprisoned for this reason in South Korea.
And I would have liked to have seen some mention about how JWs have fared in other countries. I got to visit Greece in 1993 to look into how the non-Orthodox fare in Greek society. One of the biggest complaints I encountered was the government’s rough treatment of Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to fight. Witnesses were regularly imprisoned for three years or more until 1997 when the government introduced alternate service. Armenia is another country that has given the Witnesses a hard time although recently it stopped jailing them.
So, kudos for a piece on an unusual religious group that rarely gets coverage. But next time, try telling us a bit more about this faith and why governments around the world have at one time or another thrown many of its followers into jail.
If you quote a gay-rights activist at a protest, what should you call him?
The Louisville Courier-Journal describes the Rev. Maurice Blanchard as "a gay-rights activist."
Blanchard appears pretty high up (the sixth paragraph, to be precise) in this Courier-Journal report:As a youth growing up in an evangelical household in North Carolina, Aaron Guldenschuh-Gatten said he got some firsthand experience with "conversion therapy" when, as an adolescent, he came out as gay.His parents sent him to a religious counselor to try to eliminate "my sinful desires," an experience that left him depressed, isolated and, at times, suicidal."It's an experience I still have scars from," he said.Monday, Guldenschuh-Gatten, 32, joined about 40 others in front of Louisville's Southern Baptist Theological Seminary to protest a three-day conference of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors on homosexuality and transgenderism.Organized by the Fairness Campaign, protesters prayed and held signs opposing what they call misguided efforts at counseling based on the belief homosexuality and transgenderism are wrong or sinful. It prompted horn honks and shouts of support from drivers passing by the bucolic seminary grounds on Lexington Road."This is absolutely and utterly wrong," said the Rev. Maurice Blanchard, a gay-rights activist in Louisville. "It's spiritual abuse, that's what it is."
Like the Courier-Journal, The Associated Press turns to Blanchard as a go-to source among the protesters.
Before we consider the AP's approach to Blanchard, though, here's the AP's newsy lede:LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — A prominent Southern Baptist theologian on Monday spoke out against psychological counseling aimed at turning gay people straight, saying homosexuality cannot be turned off like a switch. Instead, he said, the "sin" of being attracted to a person of the same sex can be changed by turning to the Bible's teachings.The Rev. R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, said so-called conversion or reparative therapy doesn't carry the redemptive power of prayer."In the case of many people struggling with this particular sin, we do not believe that some kind of superficial answer whereby they can turn a switch from being attracted to persons of the same sex to being attracted to persons of the opposite sex," Mohler told reporters at the start of a three-day conference on homosexuality and how to offer pastoral care to gays, hosted by the Louisville seminary."By God's grace, that might happen over time as a sign of God's work within the life of that individual. But ... for many, many people struggling with these patterns of sin, it will be a lifelong battle," Mohler said.
After a bit more background, AP introduces the protesters:Several dozen gay-rights advocates denounced the conference by holding a protest next to the seminary. Their protest included a prayer for love, inclusion and respect. Some demonstrators held up signs that said: "Love Needs No Cure."Not all clergy fell in line behind Mohler.The Rev. Maurice Blanchard, a Baptist minister, said that even though conference leaders spoke out against reparative therapy, they're promoting similar efforts with a "coming to Christ" message. Blanchard called that "spiritual abuse.""These folks here are already OK with God," Blanchard said of his fellow protesters. "They don't need fixing. They don't need correcting. They're just as they're supposed to be."
So, in the AP story, Blanchard is simply "a Baptist minister."
Here's my journalistic question: For the purposes of this news story, does that identification of Blanchard suffice? Or would more context be appropriate?
Would it be helpful to know, for instance, that Blanchard is gay himself and has a husband? Would it be helpful to know whether his Baptist church is affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention? (It's not.)
Likewise, why not provide more background on "Derek Penwell, another minister who joined the protest?" (He's a Disciples of Christ pastor, not a Baptist, for example.)
Please don't misunderstand my point: I'm not suggesting at all that AP not quote Blanchard or Penwell. If you read GetReligion, you know how much we believe in telling all sides of a story.
What I am saying is this: Journalists ought to provide enough details to help readers understand who is speaking.
In this case, Blanchard isn't simply a random Baptist minister.
He's an activist with a clear agenda.
No matter what else is going on in the world, the Islamic State is still out there attacking cities and seizing territory, constantly striving to create its new version of a heaven on earth, which in this case is called a "caliphate."
By definition, a caliphate is an Islamic state led by a "caliph." So what precisely is a "caliph"?
A typical definition offered by a Western dictionary defines this term as:* an important Muslim political and religious leader* a successor of Muhammad as temporal and spiritual head of Islam -- used as a title
So a caliph is both a political and religious leader, quite literally a man who is claiming to be a "successor of Muhammad."
Now, with that in mind let's look at a key passage in a new Washington Post story -- " 'Till Martyrdom Do Us Part" -- about the lives of woman inside the territory controlled by ISIS. This includes women who have volunteered to be part of the Islamic State, as well as those who have been kidnapped. This story is part of an ongoing Post series about life inside the caliphate.
Let me stress that this feature is quite well reported, which is amazing in light of the restraints under which reporters are working when attempting to cover the Islamic State. Much of the attributed information is based on ISIS social media and, I found this amazing, Skype conversations with people living inside the caliphate.
Then there is this summary material that serves as a kind of thesis statement:In the Islamic State’s ideology, a woman’s place is in the home, tending to her husband and producing children.“Her creator has ruled that there was no responsibility greater for her than that of being a wife to her husband,” according to “Women of the Islamic State,” a manifesto issued this year by the al-Khanssaa Brigade, a women’s group inside the Islamic State caliphate.The manifesto, translated into English by Charlie Winter, senior researcher at the London-based Quilliam Foundation, offers one of the most comprehensive windows to date into the treatment of women by the Islamic State. It says that women should leave their homes only in specific circumstances, including going to study religion or to work in situations where women are strictly segregated. The manifesto rails against Western values.Women who choose to join the Islamic State, whether they are foreigners or locals who believe in the militants’ ideology, seem to accept or even relish their new role. Some form loving marriages and embrace a system that rejects Western ideals of fashion and beauty. But many local women find the restrictions extreme, backward and terrifying, according to those interviewed.
The key word, of course, is "ideology." Which is strange, since the ISIS material attributes these laws to "her creator."
Is "ideology" the right word for journalists to use in this case? Look that up in a good online dictionary and you will find a definition similar to this one:ideology* the set of ideas and beliefs of a group or political party. ...* a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture* the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program
Now, I have no doubt that ISIS has an ideology. Yet the whole time I was reading this story I kept thinking to myself: What are the precise differences between the role of women inside the Islamic State and those living in, let's say, Saudi Arabia?
That leads to the crucial question: Are these differences, in the eyes of the leaders of these states, based on "ideology" or "theology"? This is especially important when dealing with a state led by someone claiming to be a worldwide "caliph" -- a successor to a prophet who was both a theological and a political leader.
In the eyes of ISIS leaders, who created their laws that govern the lives of women and the marriages in which, in many cases, they are being forced to live?
In short, did the Post team use the word "ideology" when it needed to use the word "theology," or some combination of the two terms? Why assume that this is primary a story about a political philosophy? Are women from around the world traveling to Iraq and Syria to back ISIS because they agree with its politics?
And back to my question about differences between ISIS and Saudi Arabia, or Pakistan, or Turkey or other states offering competing visions of Islam. Is it possible to take this subject -- the role and rights of women -- seriously without exploring the THEOLOGICAL differences between ISIS laws and the beliefs of several other forms of mainstream Islam? In fact, this Post piece has almost nothing to say about these life-and-death debates inside Islam, focusing instead on cultural differences between ISIS and the West.
Once again, we have returned to the debate at the heart of that controversial cover story -- a work of analysis, not hard news -- by Graeme Wood that ran in Atlantic Monthly under the headline, "What ISIS Really Wants." For more background, see this earlier GetReligion post.
Here is a key piece of that Wood essay, which flashed back into my mind as I read this excellent, but religion-ghost haunted, Post piece:The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic. Yes, it has attracted psychopaths and adventure seekers, drawn largely from the disaffected populations of the Middle East and Europe. But the religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam.Virtually every major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, “the Prophetic methodology,” which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail. Muslims can reject the Islamic State; nearly all do. But pretending that it isn’t actually a religious, millenarian group, with theology that must be understood to be combatted, has already led the United States to underestimate it and back foolish schemes to counter it.
I would argue that ignoring the theological component of this story also limits the ability of the Post team to understand both the motives of women who choose to back ISIS and the horrors faced by imprisoned women whose views of faith, including Islam, are radically different.
Instead, readers are offered passages such as this one:There is growing frustration among foreign women who come to the Islamic State not to marry, but to fight, which is forbidden by the militants.“We’ve seen a number of women who are not that happy with fact they are not allowed to fight and who are quite vocal,” said Peter Neumann, director of the radicalization institute at King’s College.Neumann said some of the complaints reflect a clash between the Western societies -- mainly Europe -- where these women were raised, and their new home, which is largely modeled on Islamic society from 1,400 years ago.“They are obviously attracted to a medieval ideology, and at the same time, some of their attitudes are very Western,” Neumann said.
Yes, I know that this is a direct quote from an academic expert in the West. But "ideology" alone? Really?
The Times of Israel and the Israeli government went GetReligion on two networks -- BBC and Al-Jazeera -- for their mishandling of an attack on Jews in Jerusalem and the counterattack by Israeli police.
The drama began on Saturday evening, when a teen stabbed three people in Jerusalem, killing two and wounding the third. Police shot the attacker at the scene. BBC then outraged many Israelis, including Israeli media, with its headline: "Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two." Sounded like the shooting had nothing to do with the attack. And that it mattered that the shooting victim was Palestinian but not that the stabbing victims were Jews.
After a public outcry, the news network changed its headline several times, but only drew more ire. The headlines weren’t cited in the Times, but they were by a group called BBC Watch, to which the article gave a link.
BBC's second headline was better but still tone deaf: "Jerusalem attack: Israelis killed in Old City 'by Palestinian.' " Looked like sarcasm quotes, meant to cast doubt.
Third try: "Jerusalem attack: Israelis killed in Old City by Palestinian," no quote marks.
Fourth try was the charm: "Jerusalem: Palestinian kills two Israelis in Old City."
BBC Watch still expressed ire: "In other words, professional journalists supposedly fluent in the English language had to make three changes to the article’s headline in not much more than an hour." The organization also faults BBC for not reporting that Hamas and Fatah praised the dead stabber, Mahannad Halabi. (Then again, neither does the Times of Israel in the story above.)
At least the article appears to get the facts straight:Israel is barring some Palestinians from entering the Old City of Jerusalem after two knife attacks, one fatal, on Israelis.
The restrictions are for two days and will stop Palestinians from entering the area unless they live there.
On Saturday, a Palestinian stabbed two Israelis to death. Another stabbed and wounded an Israeli teenager. Police shot dead both attackers.
The story adds another Palestinian stabbing of an Israeli on Sunday morning, with police shooting that attacker dead, too. BBC also offers helpful context: "Violence has increased recently, with rising tensions over the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound and violent confrontations between Israeli security forces and Palestinian youths, says the BBC's Yolande Knell in Jerusalem."
That statement mirrors a follow-up in the Times today, saying the stabbings were part of a wave of violence over the weekend, around the West Bank as well as the Jerusalem area. BBC ran its own update today, adding that an Israeli couple was "shot dead by suspected Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank on Thursday."
But the Israeli Government Press Office sounds like it's playing hardball with BBC, and the Times is joining in:Officials in both the GPO and the Israeli Embassy in London asked the network to change the headline and it was changed at least three times, but each time to a phrase that did not accurately reflect the events of Saturday’s attack, the Hebrew language NRG website reported.
The network, which has a long history of alleged anti-Israel bias, claimed in its defense that the headline in question was written by a junior editor and was not the result of an anti-Israel agenda.
In response, the BBC acknowledged that "the headline didn’t accurately reflect the events," nor its own article. The network said they "changed it of our own accord."
Not good enough for the Israeli government, says the Times:According to a GPO official, Israel expects an official apology from the network, and said the office was considering annulling the press cards of BBC journalists, a decision that if implemented would not allow the network to continue operating in Israel.
Pretty much a "Yeowtch" section, for a few reasons. For one, the Israeli government called out the BBC in an apparent lie. The network tried to blame it on one headline by one desk grunt, but the government says it asked three times -- and got three unacceptable heads.
The second "Yeowtch" is the government threat to throw BBC out of Israel. That's a serious matter and, rightly or wrongly, amounts to an attempt to manage the news.
The third "Yeowtch" is the Times' accusation that BBC "has a long history of alleged anti-Israel bias." No evidence is offered for this. The network may indeed have biased past coverage, but the newspaper offers no numbers or anecdotes, or even an quote from some authority. So it amounts to a mini-editorial by the reporter.
Contrast the BBC's tap-dancing with the quick and unsparing apology by Al-Jazeera. First the offending head, according to the Times:The Qatar-based network al-Jazeera also came under fire for publishing a similarly misleading headline on social media to its story of Saturday’s stabbing."Palestinian shot dead after fatal stabbing in Jerusalem; 2 Israeli victims also killed," the tweet read.While it did not prompt an official response from the GPO, social media users expressed outrage at the network for failing to mention the Palestinian was the perpetrator of the attack.
As one Twitter user wrote: "A couple of people got stabbed in Israel and then the cops went out and shot some other guy." You could even misread the headline to say the Palestinian was shot, then stabbed.But what followed was totally different from BBC: an eloquent, 180-word apology, which even linked to the original article and the tweet promoting it. As the Times story notes:
Following the outcry, the network apologized and revised the headline to read, "Two Israelis killed in stabbing attack; Palestinian suspect shot dead."An al-Jazeera editor on Sunday wrote that the network "regretted" the wording of its headline and tweet of the attack, saying it appeared "to minimize the killings of the Israeli victims and leaves out the context that the Palestinian man was their attacker."
The editor said al-Jazeera was alerted to the post after "many people in our audience pointed out" its problematic nature. It said the post was written "under the pressure of breaking news."
But the mea culpa went even further, saying Al-Jazeera was "grateful for this feedback" and asked its audience to continue to report its errors.
However, the Times and BBC Watch still fault both BBC and Al-Jazeera for not calling the attacker a terrorist. This may sound like a bit of guilt-mongering -- except that if the attacks were part of a new wave of violence, we may be seeing the birth of another intifada, or Arab uprising -- as some articles are already suggesting.
In fairness, the articles themselves got it right. Al-Jazeera's piece starts with, "Two Israeli men have been killed and a woman and her son injured in a stabbing attack by a Palestinian man in Jerusalem's Old City. The group was attacked on Saturday night by a man who was later shot and killed by the Israeli border police near the Lions' Gate in Jerusalem."
And in the much-maligned BBC story, even the first version ledes with: "Israeli police say they have shot dead a Palestinian man in Jerusalem after he attacked four people, two of whom have now died." That's not terribly different from the rewrite a half-hour later: "Two Israelis have been killed and another two injured in an attack in the Old City of Jerusalem, police say." You can see both versions side by side here, in a link supplied by BBC Watch itself.
But of course, the critics have a more than valid point: A headline is meant to summarize a story, and it influences how it is read. If you direct a reader's attention elsewhere, he may well glean a distorted view of what happened. Or he'll lash out at the news agency, as readers did at BBC.
My remaining concern here is the threat to punish BBC by snuffing out its coverage in Israel. From the criticism and network responses, the system looks like it worked. Threats only make the Israeli government look brutal -- the very impression that everyone was criticizing BBC and Al-Jazeera for conveying.
Picture: Screenshot of BBC headline, via BBC Watch.
It's getting to the point where one is tempted to believe that many mainstream journalists simply have no interest in accurately reporting what the Roman Catholic Church, or many other traditional religious institutions, believe when it comes to doctrines linked to homosexual orientation and behavior.
Consider, for example, the top of this Associated Press report -- as posted at NBC News -- about that monsignor who staged a coming-out presser the other day. The headline: "Vatican Fires Gay Priest Who Came Out Before Global Meeting."
First of all, the Vatican doesn't "fire" a priest as a priest. He was fired from his position with the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Now, might this priest eventually be "defrocked" for violating this vows? That's another issue altogether.
Anyway, here is the top of this warped little AP story:VATICAN CITY -- The Vatican on Saturday fired a monsignor who came out as gay on the eve of a big meeting of the world's bishops to discuss church outreach to gays, divorcees and more traditional Catholic families.The Vatican took action after Krzysztof Charamsa, a mid-level official in its doctrine office, came out in newspaper interviews in Italy and Poland saying he was happy and proud to be a gay priest, and that he was in love with a man whom he identified as his boyfriend.
Now, was Charamsa fired because he was gay?
The answer would be "no." The Catholic church does not discipline priests who -- from the church's doctrinal viewpoint -- carry the burden of being sexually attracted to those of the same gender. Temptation is not a sin. The questions in play are (a) has this priest honored his vows of celibacy, (b) does he support the Catholic doctrines and (c) has he taken public actions opposing church doctrines?
So, again, was Charamsa fired because he was gay? No. It's safe to assume that he was removed from his Vatican post because (a) he called a press conference to note his opposition to Catholic doctrines and (b) he also brought along his male companion to introduce to reporters. There's more, but we'll stop at this point.
As you would expect, some in the press were amazed that this happened. Why? Well, you know, because Pope Francis has provided that "Who am I to judge?" quote as the answer to all questions linked to LGBT issues.
Take it away, M.Z. "GetReligionista emeritus" Hemingway in another post at The Federalist in which she returns to territory she mapped so often at this website. The main task of her post was to show working journalists -- yet again -- the actual context of that famous, or infamous, Pope Francis quote. She starts, of course, by printing the actual transcript of that 2013 presser.
Please, folks, bookmark this URL!
At that point, M.Z. preaches the gospel of ordinary, accurate, in context journalism on this topic:Most in the media Ryan Lizza’d this quote down to “Who am I to judge?” and said that the entirety of that phrase was about everything to do with being gay.But if you read it with even a minor understanding of Christianity and its emphasis on forgiveness, you saw that the Pope was articulating one of the most basic and important aspects of Christianity. That is, he reminded the reporter that forgiveness of sins means we don’t dwell on them:“When we go to confession and truly say: ‘I have sinned in this,’ the Lord forgets and we don’t have the right not to forget, because we run the risk that the Lord won’t forget our [sins].”He’s saying that Ricca may have done everything he’s accused of and more and that if he repented of those sins, he’s forgiven by God, and we’re all to forget those sins.Later he states his belief that there’s a difference between having a sinful tendency and advocating for the same.The media, either too politically motivated or too ignorant to accurately convey Francis’ remarks, began claiming that Pope Francis was going to change church teaching on homosexuality.
This leads us back to the Charamsa case, and Twitter comments such as this one:October 3, 2015
Check out the comments on that tweet and you'll see all kinds of educational -- I use that word lightly -- commentary on this rather basic point of Catholic faith and tradition.
At some point, noted M.Z., journalists simply must grasp what Pope Francis was talking about when he used the "Who am I to judge?" language. Otherwise, they are going to keep making factual errors and missing the actual content of debates linked to Catholicism and moral theology.
I mean, the goal is to be accurate. Right?
Who knows? It could happen. With that in mind, please check out the transcripts of these two recent NPR pieces in which it appears that -- wait for it -- someone has actually been paying some attention to the Catholic Catechism. For example, check this out in a piece -- host Renee Montagne talking to reporter Joshua McElwee -- about the meeting between Kim Davis and Pope Francis:MONTAGNE: It would be good for people to actually know to some degree, though, what the pope might be thinking here. Marriage in the Catholic Church is a sacrament. Is that different from the fact that he is perceived as trying to soften the church's posture towards gays and others who've been marginalized in the past?MCELWEE: Well, yeah, I mean, I don't think we're going to hear this pope at any point say that gay marriage or same-sex marriage is OK with Catholic teaching. As you said, marriage in the Catholic Church is a sacrament, so something -- a grace that two people express before God. I mean, at this point in time and -- for as far as we know, all points of time - the church has taught that marriage is between one man and one woman.
And then, in a related NPR interview with a Marianne Duddy-Burke, a Catholic activist who opposes the church's teachings there is this:MONTAGNE: Although, let me ask you - when it comes to marriage, it is one of the sacraments of the Catholic Church, not something that would change quickly. What about that? Is there any understanding that redefining a sacrament is not the same as, say, moving in a more warm direction towards the LGBT community?DUDDY-BURKE: Well, I think there are two separate issues here. We certainly hope that the sacramental marriage for same-sex couples will eventually be recognized for the church and are actually working towards that. But right now we're talking about the official church's response to civil marriage, you know, in our country and many other countries around the world, and what we're seeing is a lot of bishops and other right-wing religious leaders still trying to undermine the right of LGBT couples and particularly same-sex couples to obtain marriage licenses and to have their relationships recognized under civil law.
Small steps. Small steps.
Major media went to church Sunday in Roseburg, Ore., to report on the faithful coming together after Thursday's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.
It's time for a "big news report card" on that coverage.
For this report card, I use three main criteria to grade the coverage, including:
• Actual religion content (does the story reflect real prayers, Scriptures, sermons, etc., or just reference generic assemblies?).
• Below-the-surface reporting (does the story rely on clichés or actually delve into the faith angle and spiritual matters?).
• Compelling overall story (beyond the religion questions, is this a solid piece of journalism?).
Read on to see my grades and brief comments:
• • •October 5, 2015
• Associated Press: B-minus
The AP's coverage is not bad. The basic facts are there. There are a few revealing quotes.
But it's pretty standard, surface-level fare:ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — A pastor whose daughter survived last week's deadly rampage in a college classroom told his congregation on Sunday that "violence will not have the last word" in this southern Oregon timber town.More than 100 people gathered to hear pastor Randy Scroggins speak at New Beginnings Church of God, including his daughter 18-year-old Lacey, who cried while sitting in the front row with her mother.Scroggins said he's been asked whether he can forgive Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, who killed nine when he opened fire Thursday at Umpqua Community College."Can I be honest? I don't know. That's the worst part of my job. I don't know" said Scroggins, his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't focus on the man. I focus on the evil that was in the man."
This background is important (see tmatt's earlier post on this question):There have been conflicting accounts of Harper-Mercer's words inside the classroom, and what he may have meant by them. Some witness accounts have said that after killing people who said they were Christian he continued to execute others, doing so randomly.
• • •October 4, 2015
The LA Times nails it on all the above criteria, starting at the very top:ROSEBURG, Ore. — People sniffled in the pews of New Hope Church here Sunday as Pastor David Ewert read the names of the nine people killed in last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College. Nine candles flickered at the Communion table near the pulpit."These candles are lit in memory of these nine individuals -- some of them your brothers and sisters in Christ," Ewert said. "We are so proud of them."A slide show projected pictures from Thursday's chaos onto the sanctuary's front wall--images of yellow crime tape and a sobbing woman holding a sign looking for a missing student."My God," a congregant mumbled as she covered her face with a bulletin."Embrace this pain," the pastor said, "bring it into our prayers."This small timber town in rural southern Oregon has always been a place where crosses bearing the words “Jesus saves” dot the sides of the roads, and on Sunday grieving residents from across town headed for the pews to make sense of the unconscionable.
This story benefits from reporters who pay close attention to what they see and hear at the assemblies they cover and then paint precise word pictures based on those observations — as opposed to cranking out copy full of clichés.
This piece is worth a read.
• • •
In Close-Knit Oregon Community, Few Are Untouched by College Killings http://t.co/tbcNj0WzI2— The New York Times (@nytimes) October 5, 2015
• New York Times: B-plus
The NY Times provides some solid religion content, interspersed among other anecdotes from Roseburg:In this rural, economically struggling corner of the state, where an illuminated cross overlooks the city, many turned to their faith to come to grips with an act that confounded explanation.Across Roseburg, signs outside taco stands and car dealerships, drive-throughs and coffee stands now say: Pray for the victims. Pray for Roseburg. Please pray for all at U.C.C., the local shorthand for Umpqua Community College.And on Sunday, as families of the dead prepared for the first funerals and memorial services, people gathered at churches around town and joined in a communion of grief.“We kept on hearing shooting after shooting,” Ms. Standley told the congregants at Liberty Christian, a sea-blue church situated in an old bus repair garage. “I can’t sleep at night. I can just hear it over and over.”
Digging just a little bit deeper below the surface would have earned the Times a top grade.
• • •October 5, 2015
• Oregonian: D
This story is noteworthy for how totally it ignores the religion angle after a lede that mentions a victim "sitting in church Sunday."
See if this headline screams potential follow-up questions for a Christian pastor:Oregon shooting: Father of survivor says victim's blood 'saved my daughter's life'
Alas, the story never even references the quote in the headline, although ABC News has it here:"The blood of that boy that covered my daughter saved her life," Scroggins said.
• • •
Oregon town residents seek solace in church after college massacre http://t.co/b25rehrREe— Reuters U.S. News (@ReutersUS) October 5, 2015
• Reuters: C
Based on the lede, the potential for this story getting religion seems relatively high:Grieving residents of an Oregon town reeling from a burst of gun violence that left 10 people dead sought solace in church services on Sunday, still bewildered by the massacre and disturbing details coming to light.At Garden Valley Church, about 250 congregants stood at their seats as vocalists sang the Christian ballad "We Shall Not Be Shaken," then watched a slide show about the victims after the minister asked children in the sanctuary to be excused."For Roseburg, this was 9/11," Pastor Craig Schlesinger said from the pulpit, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.Worshipers stood with hands raised, some wiping tears from their faces and embracing each other.
But from there, the wire service reverts to an inverted pyramid rundown of the facts known so far in the mass shooting. Faith, it turns out, makes just a cameo appearance in the story.
There is this note of interest from an unnamed student:As for the gunman's questioning of his victims' religious faith, she added: "I honestly don't think he was targeting anybody. He just wanted to do it for fun, because he still shot every single one that he asked."
• • •October 5, 2015
• Wall Street Journal: B-minus
Like AP, the Journal provides the facts:ROSEBURG, Ore. — The words of the gunman who killed nine at a community college Thursday echoed in Garden Valley Church here on Sunday morning.“Are you a Christian? Those four simple words are impacting me like never before,” Pastor Craig Schlesinger said to the congregation. “That was the question asked by the gunman a few days ago in our community college in Roseburg just prior to pulling the trigger.”
But after that strong intro, the story suffers from a lack of real depth or spiritual insight.
• • •October 5, 2015
• Washington Post: C-minus
The Post mentions overflowing church pews up high.
Then the newspaper pretty much forgets the faith angle until a cursory rundown at the very end:By Sunday morning, pastors at pulpits across town were preaching messages of restoration. At a small church in south Roseburg, members of the congregation were sitting outside the sanctuary talking about how to cope. Pastor Will Irwin at Family Church said he preached a message of forgiveness.“Some are angry at the shooter, some are angry at politicians, some are angry at officials,” Irwin said. “This gave people a chance to process. They were looking for that.”At another church across town, evangelist Billy Graham’s crisis counselors camped out. Inside, the pastor spoke about a community that would be forever changed.“Roseburg has been plunged into a unique set of cities and communities [where] mass tragedy, mayhem and murder have taken place,” Pastor Ron Laeger said at Wellspring Bible Fellowship, before paying tribute to the victims.“There’s almost a sense of defiance here: We’re not letting this define us,” Cripe said. “When you get a wound and it forms a scar, it’s so much stronger than it was before.”
By all means, click the links, read the stories and feel free to challenge my grades.
If so moved, go ahead and file an appeal with GetReligion's academic dean (tmatt).
When you have read as many mainstream news stories about church-state conflicts as I have, the minute you spot another one your mind begins asking a familiar litany of questions.
Like this one: Will the reporters find anyone to interview on the cultural left, other than an expert linked to the omnipresent Americans United for Separation of Church and State?
I mean, you know that someone from the Freedom From Religion Foundation will appear in the article. This is usually the group that is responding to something that someone in the Midwest or the Bible Belt has done to initiate the conflict that is the hook for the story. So you know that the journalists will have talked -- as they should -- with Annie Laurie Gaylor of the foundation.
But why settle for these two groups over and over, especially when dealing with conflicts in the Bible Belt? Why not seek out church-state professionals who live and work in that region?
This leads to the next question: Who will the journalists from the elite Northeast seek out, when researching the story, to serve as expert voices for the other side, for the cultural conservatives involved in this story? I mean, if journalists doing a story of this kind need to talk to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (and they do) and they need to talk to experts on the church-state left (and they do), then who will they find to serve as experts on the other side, on the cultural right?
News flash! There are plenty of academics and lawyers now who work on what could be called the church-state right. There are even folks in think tanks that are in the middle (#gasp). If journalists are going to talk to the groups on the left (as they should), then they also need to talk to experts on the other side. That would be the journalistic thing to do.
This brings us to rural Georgia (you don't get more Bible Belt than that), where representatives of The New York Times (you don't get more elite Northeast than that) are trying to figure out why the locals -- police in this case -- keep wanting to pull God into public life. Here's the top of the story:CEDARTOWN, Ga. -- The chief deputy to Sheriff Johnny Moats of Polk County appeared in an office doorway one morning this month with a message he knew would delight his boss: Another Georgia lawman had heeded Sheriff Moats’s suggestion to add “In God We Trust” decals to official vehicles.
It was a small part of what has emerged as a big moment for the national motto, which has long been cherished by many Christians, criticized by those who say it infringes on the separation of church and state, overlooked by plenty and safeguarded by courts. In recent months, dozens of Southern and Midwestern law enforcement agencies have added the axiom to squad cars, usually to the vexation of vocal, often distant critics, and at the personal expense of sheriffs, police chiefs or rank-and-file employees.
“If it’s on my money and it’s on the state flag, I can put it on a patrol car,” said Sheriff Moats, who wrote to Georgia’s sheriffs this year to promote the motto’s placement on law enforcement vehicles. “Just about every single day, I have another sheriff calling and saying, ‘I’ve done it’ or ‘Can you send me a picture of your patrol car?’ ”
This leads to the usual list of vague attributions as the Times team describes the conflict, phrases such as "some officials content" and "but critics worry."
Pretty soon, Gaylor shows up (this is her job) as the initiator of the conflict caused by these threatening decals. In this case, the problem is that some police think that linking their taxpayer-funded work to God -- by quoting the national motto -- will be seen as a positive, trust-building gesture by most of the local taxpayers in these zip codes.
In response, the Times team quotes Gaylor (as it should) saying the magic "t-word."“This motto has nothing to do with the problem of police forces’ shooting people, but it’s a great way to divert attention away from that and wrap yourself in a mantle of piety so that you’re above criticism,” said Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Wisconsin-based group that has demanded that law enforcement officials stop exhibiting the motto. “The idea of aligning the police force with God is kind of scary. That’s the first thing you’d expect to see in a theocracy.”
The locals, of course, are not impressed -- which is kind of the point.
Let me add a trigger warning at this point, as I illustrate this. The following paragraph from this report contains the kind of stereotypical Times language about the Bible Belt that may offend sensitive Southerners who tend to be traumatized then encountering attitudes such as those captured in that classic New Yorker cover image known as "View of the World from 9th Avenue."Protests and warnings from critics like Ms. Gaylor also seem to be of little concern in places like Polk County, a few minutes from the Alabama border, where about 41,000 people live in a rural area dotted with churches, Confederate battle flags and fried chicken restaurants. The small atrium of Sheriff Moats’s building features a pair of murals painted by inmates, including one of the Ten Commandments on tablets that are more than six cinder blocks tall. A painted golden banner reading “In God We Trust” hangs above them.
Sooner or later, one of the usual suspects on the church-state left shows up to deliver an expert opinion on this subject. Yes, this expert has ties to Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. The whole problem, you see, is that the national motto is the national motto, which implies that it might be acceptable to quote it until Congress (or U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy) decides to edit or erase the national motto.
In other words, this reign of terror may continue (complete with another Bible Belt food reference or two):“The motto is pretty much immunized from constitutional challenge unless you can show really bad intent,” said Steven K. Green, a law professor at Willamette University and former legal director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. “The likelihood of success is minimal. The likelihood of creating worse precedent is actually greater.”
So for now, Sheriff Moats said, there is little reason or incentive for him to abandon the stickers. When he stopped at Gran-Gran’s here one afternoon for a lunch of hamburger steak and banana pudding, customer after customer expressed support. One man asked whether Sheriff Moats happened to have with him any of the related “In God We Trust” stickers that have been sold at his office for $2 each. (He did, in his patrol car.)
So, back to the basic journalistic question that I raised at the top of this post: Who did the Times team turn to as an academic and legal expert to give authoritative insights on behalf of the cultural and legal right in this story? Surely the nation's most powerful newsroom allowed someone to speak for the other side, rather than settling for the legal opinions of county sheriffs?
The answer can be found by clicking on the video shown below and listening carefully. Trigger warning: This is another reference to life in the American South.
Even as the Synod of Bishops on the family gets under way in Rome -- with discussions of divorce and gay rights in the air -- it's impossible for Pope Francis and his handlers to avoid talks about you know what and you know who.
Issues of religious liberty and gay marriage -- incarnate in the form of Kim Davis of Kentucky -- remain the glowing Kryptonite in the room for mainstream journalists and the Vatican public-relations team trying to deal with them.
Check out the top of today's John L. Allen, Jr., Crux story from the Vatican. With all of the global intrigue, what takes top billing?ROME -- In the wake of bitter controversy surrounding a private meeting with Kentucky clerk Kim Davis during his trip to the United States last week, Pope Francis has a chance beginning Sunday to get back “on message” with the opening of a Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome.The Oct. 4-25 summit of prelates from around the world is a critically important moment for the pontiff, one he’s been building toward for more than a year. If past is prologue, however, he may face a stiff challenge in steering it toward his desired outcome.On Friday, the Vatican issued a brief statement on the encounter with Davis, saying it was not intended to endorse her position “in all its particular and complex aspects.”Whatever one makes of how the meeting happened, or what it ultimately says about Francis’ views -- and theories on both matters abound -- the big picture remains intact and works to validate a fairly firm conclusion about this pope. To wit, Francis is positioned squarely in the middle of what Americans have come to know as the “culture wars.”
It really helps to back up a day or so and read the earlier Allen analysis of the Davis hug fallout.
The key to this Allen essay, for journalists covering this story, is not what did or did not happen between the pope and the county clerk from Kentucky. For those interested in content -- doctrinal and political, in this case -- what really matters is what Pope Francis said on that flight back to Rome from America (transcript here, once again).
Thus the headline on Allen's commentary: "The Vatican must speak on conscientious objection."
It is important, as the Crux scribe notes, that the Vatican put out that distancing statement about the Davis meeting, saying that Pope Francis did not mean to back Davis’ position “in all its particular and complex aspects.” However, what does that mean? Hold that thought, because we will come back to that point.
The bottom line, for Allen:Aside from Machiavellian subplots and political spin, there is one serious conclusion to be drawn from the mess: There is now an urgent need for the Catholic Church to elaborate on precisely how it understands the right, and the limits, of conscientious objection.Francis said on the papal plane returning to Rome that conscientious objection is a “human right,” including for government officials. Taken in tandem with news of the Davis meeting, many observers assumed he was talking about her stance in Kentucky.In light of Friday’s statement, that conclusion now seems unfounded.
But then again:One could argue that people in Davis’ position should be entitled to an exemption from personal involvement in implementing a law they regard as immoral, since otherwise large numbers of people of faith might effectively be disqualified from public service. Obviously Francis’ strong rhetoric on religious freedom generally while he was in the country cuts in this direction.That’s different, however, from saying that public officials on their own ought to be able to deny people services, such as the issuance of marriage licenses, to which they’re entitled.
However, there is a problem.
When the Vatican says it does not support Davis’ position “in all its particular and complex aspects," what precisely is it thinking is the position being argued by Davis and her legal team? Is the real issue that the Vatican is trying to distance itself from the public image of Davis and her supporters, or from the actual content of the legal points made by her lawyers? What is the true source of her public image?
Thus, I wrote Allen an email and noted the following:Part of the problem is that Davis has two sets of supporters. One set truly is trying, still, to oppose and stop gay marriage rights from being used. They are cheering for her and consider her a hero.The problem is that Davis and her actual legal team are saying and DOING something else. They are seeking a legal solution similar to North Carolina laws and she/they have endorsed compromises that would both honor Obergefell -- in new Kentucky laws drafted to do that -- and allow a conscientious objector status to those who believe that they, personally, cannot endorse or symbolically take part in gay marriages.So is the pope's point to distance himself from Davis' actual stance on the issue, or distance himself from the media image of her stance crafted by the far right and by the secular news media?
Allen responded, in part, that "what I meant was the latter option you identify, not the former."
In other words, Rome is having to deal with the reality of how the Davis case is being presented to the public by both her worst friends and her worst enemies.
At this point, it doesn't really matter what Davis is actually advocating -- which is a centrist compromise that would allow gay marriages to proceed without hassles, but without individual public officials such as herself, people with openly stated conflicts of interest, from being required to endorse them.
In other words, Davis is asking for conscientious objector status.
Meanwhile, the pope has clearly spoken out in favor of conscientious objector status, for citizens and even government officials caught in doctrinal clashes between their own faith and the new same-sex marriage laws of the state. As I wrote in my Universal column this past week:Terry Moran of ABC News asked if Francis supported individuals "who say they cannot in good conscience … abide by some laws or discharge their duties as government officials, for example in issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples?"Pope Francis said he could not address all such cases, thus avoiding a reference to Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who secretly met with the pope in Washington, D.C."If a person does not allow others to be a conscientious objector, he denies a right," said Francis. "Conscientious objection must enter into every juridical structure because it is a right, a human right. Otherwise we would end up in a situation where we select what is a right, saying 'this right has merit, this one does not.' …"If a government official is a human person, he has that right."
So, again, is the Vatican trying to distance itself from the content of the Davis argument or from the public image of Davis and her stance created by the extreme right-wing and by the incomplete or often inaccurate reports produced, day after day, by the news media?
Does the Vatican dare respond to Allen's challenge? At this point, the pope's handlers have seen the reality, which is that many journalists have little or no interest in accurately reporting the views of traditional religious believers who are trying to find a way to remain active in the American public square.
Why? Traditional forms of religious faith are now considered deadly. They are Kryptonite.
What does it mean to be agnostic? Are there people who actually consider it to be a religion?
THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:
In Pew Research’s much-mulled 2014 religion poll of 35,000 U.S. adults, 3.1 percent defined themselves as “atheists” (compared with 1.6 percent in a similar 2007 survey) while a somewhat larger faction of 4 percent called themselves “agnostics” (versus 2.4 percent in 2007). Pew grabbed headlines by combining them with the far larger numbers who said their faith was “nothing in particular” and concluding that 22.8 percent of Americans are now religiously “unaffiliated” compared with only 16.1 percent seven years earlier.
The agnostic term was coined in 1869 by biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, a noted advocate of Darwin’s evolution theory, to distinguish his own doubts from outright atheism. Darwin soon embraced that label for himself. So did a popular U.S. performer of that era, the touring anti-religion lecturer Robert Ingersoll. However, the agnostic outlook was nothing new. This sort of skepticism was found among some thinkers in ancient Greece and India as far back as the centuries B.C.
No doubt (so to speak) the line between agnosticism and atheism can be confusing, but it was well and clearly defined by the great British mathematician Bertrand Russell, a critic of Christianity, in his essay “What Is An Agnostic?”:
“An agnostic thinks it impossible to know the truth in matters such as God and the future life with which Christianity and other religions are concerned. Or, if not impossible, at least impossible at the present time.
Are agnostics atheists? No. An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial. At the same time, an agnostic may hold that the existence of God, though not impossible, is very improbable; he may even hold it so improbable that it is not worth considering in practice. In that case, he is not far removed from atheism.”
Note the first two sentences. Other writers on this distinguish between “strong” (or “hard” or “closed” or “strict”) agnosticism and “weak” (or “soft” or “open”) agnosticism. The first camp asserts flatly that human reason is incapable of verifying God or the supernatural so no-one is ever capable of knowing the truth. The second “weak” form contends that we are currently unable to know about such things but they aren’t necessarily unknowable in principle so it’s wise to avoid absolute claims.
Continue reading "Define 'agnostic,' please" by Richard Ostling.
Drop a rock in a lake, and you'll see a splash, then ripples. Everybody knows that. But it takes seasoned news people to spot ways that a story on one continent shows up on another. That's what Reuters did, with a smart, sensitive newsfeature on Christians fleeing from Iraq to Lourdes, France. There's one important hole, or ghost, but we will get to that.
Reuters, BBC and others have (appropriately) thrown tons of time and resources into the human river of hundreds of thousands who have walked, floated, and sometimes died on the way from the Middle East to Europe. The Lourdes story takes a quieter, more personal look at the phenomenon -- and how believers in one town have responded.
In telling about the 60 Iraqis in Lourdes (so far), the article also adeptly works the story into the site's history:For Iraqi Christians fleeing Islamic State militants in their native land reaching Lourdes, the French town long synonymous with miraculous religious visions, feels little short of a modern-day miracle.Arriving in the town where peasant girl Bernadette Soubirous is said to have had visions of the Virgin Mary in 1858, the refugees have also experienced real Christian charity through the efforts of some dedicated, Lourdes-based compatriots, an ex-soldier and the local parish priest."We are split between sadness and joy. But Lourdes is like a flower offering us her perfume. It is the town of the Virgin Mary, giving us our faith," said one of the refugees, Youssif, 48, a former teacher of the Aramaic and Syriac languages.
Reuters fills in background on the Middle East war, noting that the Christian community in Iraq has fallen from about a million in 2003 to 400,000 by July 2014. It notes that the Islamic State has killed not only many Christians but also "members of other religious minorities," including some fellow Sunni Muslims. (Should have mentioned the Yazidi, though; they’ve gotten more than their share of violence.)
We read short bios of what the Iraqi Christians fled and how they found hosts in Lourdes. Turns out some residents, like Nahren and Amer, left the country years ago:The Iraqi Christian couple, who fled to France more than a decade ago, helped to organise the escape to France of Youssif and dozens of other Iraqi Christians with the active involvement of their parish priest, Jean-Francois Duhar."They asked me if we could help them to bring some of their friends and relatives (to France)," recalled Duhar.He and his bishop contacted the French consulate in Arbil, capital of Iraqi Kurdistan, just days after France agreed last year to grant asylum to persecuted Iraqi Christians. Visas were issued for those with host families to go to.
The couple has newcomers stay with them for some orientation, then go to live with other homes. The project is even brokered by a local Catholic organization called Echo 65, run by a retired soldier.
This generosity is all the more remarkable when we read that the Pyrenees region, to which Lourdes belongs, will be allocated other refugees as part of an overall plan by the European Union. The mayor of Lourdes even says the town will be "glad to welcome" them, although he's concerned about being overwhelmed.
But this isn’t just a bleeding-heart article; it's frank about flaws of the refugees. Most are unemployed, and their hosts complain about that. One says they tend to stay to themselves, so they "don’t get to practice their French much." Another says many of them "showed little desire to find work." But his forbearance shows in confessing he wouldn't know how he would react "if I had gone through what they’ve endured."
The article itself has at least one flaw, though.
It may sound strange to talk about a GetReligion-style religious "ghost" in a story set in Lourdes. But look again: What's the religious background of these refugees? Just because they're in a strongly Catholic town, can we assume they're Catholic? It's the kind of thing tmatt often complains about in mainstream media reporting -- "generic Christians" in the Middle East.
In fact, the region teems with several traditions: Armenian, Syriac, Assyrian, Chaldean, Byzantine Catholic, etc. If western Catholics are helping eastern Christians -- and if more eastern churches have organized in Lourdes -- that would be an interesting part of this story.
That said, I still regard this feature as a model for other mainstream media -- even Reuters itself -- to follow.
The wider the ripples spread from Iraq, Syria and elsewhere, the more local reporters should watch for the effects where they live and work. People from the Middle East may well show up in their stores, neighborhoods and yes, churches.
Photo: Basilica at Lourdes. Photographer: Evgeny Shmulev via Shutterstock.com.