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Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

Saturday, September 24, 2016

College football Saturdays are back, so let's stop and ponder a journalism mystery linked to the new football coaching regime at the University of Virginia.

The feature at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville is pretty direct, starting with the headline: "Part of the Bronco way is no work on Sunday."

Bronco is not a reference to a mascot, in Wahoo land, but to the school's new head coach -- Bronco Mendenhall. Things are not off to a good start there, so times are a bit tense. Here is the overture:

The day after Virginia’s season-opening loss to Richmond, Ruffin McNeill, the team’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, did what he’s always done. He got up and went to work Sunday morning.Problem was, when McNeill reached the McCue Center, home of Wahoo football, nobody was there. He went home, came back later, and nobody was there.Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall told everyone in the program that his philosophy has always been to take Sunday off during the season, and come back refreshed on Monday. McNeill didn’t believe it.“Coach Ruff went back home and told his wife Erlene, they’re really not there,” Mendenhall chuckled during his weekly press conference on Monday. “He thought the BYU staff was just tricking him.”

So, gentle readers, why does this particular head coach not work on Sundays?

Did you catch that passing reference to "BYU"?

Yes, Mendenhall came to Virginia from Brigham Young University, which is not your normal, run-of-the-mill football power school.

OK, raise your hand if you know what is different about BYU and, thus, a head coach who hails from that particular campus. The story does offer a hint:

Mendenhall has always given his coaches and players Sundays off through the years, and it has worked well. Sunday is for family, to focus on a day of rest, and faith, something the coach believes is essential.Most programs treat Sunday just like any other workday. Players come in and lift, watch film. Coaches do all their film work, and put the Saturday game to bed, and move on to the next opponent, introducing the next foe to the players. Normally, those players get Mondays off, but the coaches are working as hard as ever.

Now you need to read the whole piece. This "Sunday off" thing is framed in terms of rest and recovery, with players having a chance to get fresh legs under them before returning to class on Monday morning.

And, and ... As you read the piece, what is the essential fact that is missing here?

So we have a head coach, married with young children. He. Is. From. Brigham. Young. University. The odds are very good that he is doing what on Sunday? Might there be some reason -- perhaps linked to that word "faith" -- that leads to this twist in his professional life?

Yes, the word "Mormon" -- as in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints -- never appears in the feature.

While many religious groups have disciplines and rules about holy days and the Sabbath, the LDS is especially diligent about this. In fact, please see this Religion News Service piece about the fact that Mormon leaders have been making a special effort to stress observance of the Sabbath during this past year.

Here is my simple question for journalists thinking this over: Is this Mormon hook relevant information about the "Sundays off" policy put in place by the new head coach at Virginia, as in that coach from BYU?

The feature ends like this:

Mendenhall has a different philosophy. His players go home to their families at night. There are no cots in the offices. That doesn’t mean he and his staff are not working hard or that they don’t want to win.“To have that day [Sunday] to meet the rigors of this profession, and to have any kind of sustainability … I wouldn’t be able to keep going, certainly not for 11 years, and hopefully for a long tenure here to lead to success,” Mendenhall said. “I wouldn’t be able to do that without [Sundays].”It’s a different way of doing things in the coaching world. In fact, Mendenhall said that often at coaching conventions, his staff has been called liars when they tell other coaches that they don’t work on Sunday.Somebody tell Ruffin it’s OK to sleep in on Sunday morning.

You see? It's all about football. There's nothing else going on here.

Correct?

Categories: Main

What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

Friday, September 23, 2016

The come-hither title “What It Feels Like to Die” admittedly drew my eyes to the top paragraph of this Atlantic article.

Why? I had watched my father slowly die over a period of weeks this past June and it was quite eye-opening (and depressing) watching him slowly shut down. When he even lost interest in his beloved cats,  I knew the end was near.

As the article relates, dying people are in another world weeks before the final moments and they’re not talking about it much with us. Many sense a summons to pack it up here for the big move to the Beyond.

As I read through the piece, however, I noticed a big gap. Yes, as you would imagine, this has something to do with faith, God and Ultimate Questions.

“Do you want to know what will happen as your body starts shutting down?”My mother and I sat across from the hospice nurse in my parents’ Colorado home. It was 2005, and my mother had reached the end of treatments for metastatic breast cancer. A month or two earlier, she’d been able to take the dog for daily walks in the mountains and travel to Australia with my father. Now, she was weak, exhausted from the disease and chemotherapy and pain medication.  My mother had been the one to decide, with her doctor’s blessing, to stop pursuing the dwindling chemo options, and she had been the one to ask her doctor to call hospice. Still, we weren’t prepared for the nurse’s question. My mother and I exchanged glances, a little shocked. But what we felt most was a sense of relief.During six-and-a-half years of treatment, although my mother saw two general practitioners, six oncologists, a cardiologist, several radiation technicians, nurses at two chemotherapy facilities, and surgeons at three different clinics—not once, to my knowledge, had anyone talked to her about what would happen as she died.There’s good reason. “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades.

That’s definitely true. We knew my dad was in a world of his own that we could not enter. The article goes on to say that people within days of death are quasi-comatose and barely aware of what’s going on. The writer interviews David Hovda, director of the UCLA Brain Injury Research Center about what goes on in the brain.

“As the brain begins to change and start to die, different parts become excited, and one of the parts that becomes excited is the visual system,” Hovda explains. “And so that’s where people begin to see light.”Recent research points to evidence that the sharpening of the senses some people report also seems to match what we know about the brain’s response to dying. Jimo Borjigin, a neuroscientist at the University of Michigan, first became intrigued by this subject when she noticed something strange in the brains of animals in another experiment: Just before the animals died, neurochemicals in the brain suddenly surged. While scientists had known that brain neurons continued to fire after a person died, this was different. The neurons were secreting new chemicals, and in large amounts.“A lot of cardiac-arrest survivors describe that during their unconscious period, they have this amazing experience in their brain,” she says. “They see lights and then they describe the experience as ‘realer than real.’” She realized the sudden release of neurochemicals might help to explain this feeling.

If you pick up any book about near death experiences, lots of people experience a light, usually after they die and before they come back. The light people experience is something they often connect to God.

Yet, God is not mentioned in this story, nor in the accompanying video. I bet, however, that people who claim having an NDE don't think it was all a result of neurochemicals.

I was curious why this story did not probe the experiences of people who expected to meet God and whether their pre-death days differed from others. It’s not an unreasonable question. A New York Times piece from earlier this year talked about the dreams that dying people have and how the living should deal with them. Twice in the story a priest or chaplain is mentioned as someone needed to bring solace to a wounded soul who can’t find rest. 

A similar story in the Deseret News also brings up matters of faith. So, it’s a bit odd that the Atlantic skipped the topic entirely. In fact, the Atlantic itself, in a 2015 piece about near-death experiences written by an admitted skeptic, at least mentioned religious viewpoints. The anecdote about the rats was also alluded to in that 2015 piece. 

Both Atlantic pieces give far more quotes to the voices of science over that of belief in a supernatural reason behind near death experiences and, in this latest piece, dreams of meeting people who have gone on before. Could, just could it be a window into another realm?

My mother and I were talking recently about how the popular view of death is reflected in Meryl Streep’s peaceful death scene at the end of the (just-released) movie Florence Foster Jenkins. But that was not typical of the way many people die. One of my mom's friends had died while struggling for breath.  When my mother was summoned to my dad’s bedside in the early hours of June 24, it was because the aides noticed he had started breathing laboriously. This went on for a few hours until an Episcopal priest walked into the room intending to give Holy Communion.

One glance at my dad told the priest that Last Rites would be more appropriate. It was only  when he said the Lord’s Prayer that my dad visibly relaxed. A few minutes later, he stopped breathing. 

Since faith shapes life, why can’t it shape death? I know it does for many, many people. Why is it such an imposition to mention this in a magazine article? 

Alas, the only spiritual content in this Atlantic piece is the photo of the angel statue at the top of the magazine page.

Categories: Main

Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Friday, September 23, 2016

Muslim college student fights for her right to wear a hijab: good, controversial piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At least until you see that much of the article was drawn from the campus newspaper, the Georgia State Signal. And both stories are haunted by religious "ghosts" -- the omission of the faith-based objections underlying the student's protest.

You’ve no doubt read about hijab cases before, often involving students or office workers. Nabila Khan's story is a more extreme case, an acid test for individual freedom: the niqab, which not only covers a woman's hair and neck, but envelops her face except for her eyes. 

So her story carries a greater punch, which the Constitution adroitly summarizes:

During her first week of school, a Muslim student was asked to remove her veil by a Georgia State University teacher. She refused.Nabila Khan, a first-year student, is now at the center of a controversy about religious freedom.She told The Signal, the school’s newspaper, that the teacher held her back after class and asked her not to conceal her face while in class, as was written in the syllabus. Khan refused, and said she believed being required to remove her niqab violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.Khan said in the article that she chooses to wear the niqab, which is a veil that covers all but the eyes, to work and school.“Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it,” she said.

It's a compelling, counterintuitive treatment of a news story: the head covering not as a symbol of an oppressed gender, but as an individual religious choice. But how original? Have a look at the Signal's version:

On Aug. 25, during Khan’s first week of college, one of her teachers held her after class to request she not conceal her face. Khan refused, claiming such an ask violated her right to freely exercise her religious beliefs.“I wear it to work. I wear it to school,” she told The Signal about her niqab. “Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it.”Khan said she feels proud and “protected” when wearing her niqab. “This is the only way I can practice my religion the way I believe it’s meant to be practiced,” she said.

Now, no one blames the Constitution for referencing another article; after all, it freely acknowledges the source. But shouldn't the result be more reporting, less cutting and pasting?

Both articles note a number of conflicts:

* A state ban on masks, passed six decades ago to prevent Klansmen from wearing hoods in public.

* A university rule permitting veils on campus for religious purposes, although Khan's teacher seemed unaware of that.

* The First Amendment, which Khan says guarantees the right to wear her niqab.

* An argument from State Sen. Josh McKoon that if his religious-objection bill had passed, it would have made it easier for Khan to sue for her right to a niqab. He says the bill, patterned after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, would have required the university to show a "compelling interest" in banning the Muslim garb.

So the Atlanta newspaper had plenty to explore. What did it add? Unfortunately, not a lot. And it omits at least one thing that the Signal added: how the matter was resolved.

Both articles say also that the university took Khan's side. But only the Signal added how her teacher took it:

But when Khan told the teacher she was reaching out to school officials and a lawyer, her teacher backpedaled, deferring the official decision to Georgia State’s administration.University spokeswoman Andrea Jones told The Signal, “The university is public property, and we permit face veils as religious accommodation. There is nothing in the code of conduct that specifically addresses face covering,” she said. Sonja Roberts, a spokeswoman for the University System of Georgia, backed the school’s stance.Khan, who said the teacher’s approach was “very respectful,” said she harbors no ill will and believes the teacher is merely a stickler for the rules.

Neither article, BTW, names the teacher. The Signal says Khan asked them not to say. And the AJC didn’t bother to find out.

Nor does either account deals with the obvious question: What, in fact, does Islam say about a woman covering her face and/or hair? Are Islamic beliefs on the topic so well known that they don’t bear repeating? 

All we get is someone from the Council on American-Islamic Relations telling the Signal that most Muslim women "believe in wearing a hair scarf as a duty to God." What kind of duty? 

Quranic verses on the topic, such as surah 24: 31, are not hard to find:

And say to the believing women that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty; and that they should not display their beauty and ornaments except what must ordinarily appear thereof; that they should draw their veils over their bosoms and not display their beauty except to their husbands…

Now, that's not a lot to prompt a woman to conceal everything but her eyes. So, interpretation by local source would have been just the thing. Someone like Abbas Barzegar, an assistant professor of Islam at Georgia State, as well as an advisor for the Muslim Students Association there.

Maybe the prof wasn’t in? Well, how about an imam at one of the seven mosques in the Atlanta area?

Readers could also have been told the varieties of hijab in various cultures, as in the picture at the top of this post. I even found an article on differences between a hijab and a niqab. For one, the latter is most often seen in the Arabian peninsula -- not only Saudi Arabia but Oman and the United Arab Emirates.

I found this passage interesting from the aforementioned site, Hijabi World:

Both headdresses are worn by Muslim women around the world in public places and the purpose is to be modest and avoid unfavorable comments by passerby people or even an instance of bad-eye or evil-eye which can bring you misfortune. So even though it is not compulsory in the religion, it is still encouraged a lot as source of women veiling themselves from unnecessary attention.

Nice, simple, human description. And suitable for copying and pasting.

Whether a niqab is appropriate college garb is, as President Obama might say, above my pay grade. But asking questions, consulting several sources, adding background, uncovering basic motives -- that’s part of newsroom culture.  Or it used to be.

Thumbnail: Woman in Yemen in a niqab, photographed by Steve Evans on Flickr. Used by permission (CC BY-SA 2.0).
 
Graphic: Different types of Islamic headgear for women, by Amanda La Bode via Slideshare.net.

Categories: Main

Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Friday, September 23, 2016

Back in the early 1990s, when I began teaching journalism and mass media full-time, I used to ask my Communications 101 students a simple question: How many of you grew up in a home in which your parents subscribed to a daily newspaper?

I also asked them how many televisions were in the homes in which they were raised, which yielding some shockingly high numbers.

I would say that, semester after semester, it was normal for about 75 percent of the entering mass-communications students in that particular Christian liberal arts institution to say that there was no daily newspaper in their homes. When I asked why that was the case, the most common answer was that their parents believed that their local newspaper couldn't be trusted because it leaned way to the left and offended their beliefs as traditional Christians.

Do the math. A student who was 18-19 years old in the early 1990s would be how old today? That would be 40-ish?

I thought of this when I was reading mainstream press materials about (1) that recent blast of dire Gallup Poll numbers (click here and then here for earlier GetReligion posts) about public trust in the news and (2) the growing awareness that elite journalists have given up pretending that they can cover Donald Trump and, more importantly, the views of supporters (many of them reluctant supporters), in a fair, balanced and accurate manner. On that second topic, see this conversation-starter of a piece at The Atlantic, with the headline, "The Death of 'He Said, She Said' Journalism."

All of this factored into this week's Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

As you would expect, we were still mulling over the ramifications of the Gallup numbers. Click here to see a Gallup executive summary of those stats. Here is the hook that drew some (but surprisingly muted) media coverage:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.Gallup began asking this question in 1972, and on a yearly basis since 1997. Over the history of the entire trend, Americans' trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72%, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. After staying in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Americans' trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily. It has consistently been below a majority level since 2007.

What does this have to do with Trump? That's the obvious question, right?

While it is clear Americans' trust in the media has been eroding over time, the election campaign may be the reason that it has fallen so sharply this year. With many Republican leaders and conservative pundits saying Hillary Clinton has received overly positive media attention, while Donald Trump has been receiving unfair or negative attention, this may be the prime reason their relatively low trust in the media has evaporated even more. It is also possible that Republicans think less of the media as a result of Trump's sharp criticisms of the press. Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.

So Hurricane Donald may tell us something about that grabber number -- that 32 percent of the American public at least as a "fair" level of trust in the mainstream news industry.

But here is why I started with that anecdote from my classrooms in the 1990s. Why were the trust levels already so low?

Maybe Trump crashed things from 40-something to 30-something, in terms of the trust numbers. But what, in previous decades, took the press-trust level down to 50 percent and below in the first place? I would be interested, for example, in the direction that these media-trust numbers took in the decade after Roe v. Wade. Is there a link between earthquake U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the popularity of the press?

However, there is no question that the status of the press is especially bleak at the moment.

Over at The Washington Post, opinion writer Charles Lane noted that things have gotten so bad, in terms of average Americans trusting the press, that journalists are finding that they can't even throw darts at the ultimate target -- Trump -- and make them stick.

Thus, he confesses:

Trump is benefiting from the political equivalent of jury nullification. This is the well-known phenomenon whereby a jury returns a “not guilty” verdict despite its awareness that the prosecution has proved its case.Jurors do this for many reasons, but generally it’s a form of protest, either against the law that the defendant is alleged to have violated, the system that the prosecution represents, the prosecution’s methods -- or some combination of these.

This is where the Gallup numbers play a brutal role in public discourse.

Against Trump, the press is a particularly ineffective prosecutor, for the obvious reason that “mainstream media” enjoy so little legitimacy among his followers. Only 14 percent of Republicans express trust and confidence in the media, according to Gallup. The figure for independents, who also lean toward Trump, is 30 percent. In fact, sticking it to the “liberal” press is probably one of the things his backers enjoy most.

At this point, critics on the left who believe journalists haven't done enough to crash Trump need to stop and think, noted Lane. As painful as it would be, it is time for them to focus less on the "insufficiency of that vetting." Instead, they might try "reflecting on its futility."

So, what happens after the election? Could things get even worse?

I asked Wilken if he could imagine a Clinton presidency producing happier days for the press, in terms of public trust. #NOWAY

Well, how about a Trump presidency? #HELLNO

It was at that point that I wanted to cue the music in the YouTube at the top of this post.

Enjoy the podcast?

Categories: Main

The Satanic Temple comes to Salem and the Boston Globe does a puff piece

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Gotta love the new style of opinion journalism out there these days. Here we have articles that look like a news piece, present as news but are actually public relations.

Such is a recent piece in the Boston Globe about the Satanic Temple setting up shop in Salem, Mass., site of the 1692 witch trials. The Temple’s national headquarters is breaking local zoning regulations to move there, but that is brushed off. I’m not sure another house of worship –- or unworship –- could get away with that but, well, the devil is in these details.

When The Satanic Temple officially opens its doors on Friday, Salem will become home to the organization’s international headquarters.But pitchfork-wielding mobs protesting the move seem unlikely, as the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Puritans who once populated the city has given way to a “live and let live” attitude in present day Salem.Less than a mile from Gallows Hill -- the notorious spot where villagers executed more than a dozen people accused of witchcraft in the 1690s -- an 1882 Victorian on Bridge Street will serve as The Satanic Temple’s first physical headquarters, said Lucien Greaves, the temple’s spokesman.“The history of Salem is also part of the history of Satanism,” Greaves said. “I feel that [Salem] is a very appropriate place for this” temple.The Satanic Temple building, which is zoned as an art gallery, will open to the public with art installations, lectures and film screenings, said Greaves, a Cambridge resident.

Then comes the theology insert:

Dating back centuries, Satanism has been misunderstood by wide swaths of American society, Greaves said. Satanists do not worship an Antichrist, or any other deity. Rather, Satanism preaches independent thought and using evidence-based science as a basis for understanding the world, and views Satan as a literary figure representing an eternal struggle against authoritarianism.

Yes, the narrative of modern-day Satanism (at least in this case, with this circle of people) is that its followers are atheists who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Satan. Is the above description the reporter’s own thoughts or something borrowed off some talking points? In the world of traditional journalism, it’s considered professional to attribute such statements to the Temple as to what they say their beliefs are. You can find all this on their web site.

I know that's so 20th century. Also, not everyone might agree that Satan is a mythical figure taking Ayn Rand-like stands against the evil state –- or God -- and for free will.

Eight miles north of Salem is a famous seminary where there might be people with different views about Satanism –- or at least the Satanic Temple -– and who know enough theology to give the temple folks a run for their money. In fact, there are at least five seminaries in the greater Boston region (left, right and middle) where no doubt there’s lots of folks who’ve given some thought to the witch trials, the Satanic Temple or both.

I’m raising the mirror image question that’s been raised elsewhere on these pages this year to ask that if a different sort of group had moved into a historic house in Salem and tried to pass off their international headquarters as an art gallery, wouldn’t the Globe have polled some folks who were against the idea?

Instead, we get an ending that reads as follows:

Rather than worrying about public reception, Greaves hopes the influx of tourists will result in a high volume of temple visitors, he said. As for locals, anyone with doubts or fears will likely come around in time.“We’re not going to be going door to door proselytizing,” Greaves said. “We don’t want to cause any controversy in the community in Salem.”

Maybe any doubters will likely come around in time, but is it the place of a newspaper to say that?

At least the Associated Press hinted that not all Salem residents are on board with the Temple's arrival. Other coverage by the New York Daily News and the Salem News likewise didn't connect with other local religious institutions although the News at least tried to explain what Satanism is about and was much more direct about the Temple's flouting of zoning regulations. 

The Globe story is a case of a reporter wanting to write a tongue-in-cheek article that cleverly wraps up the town's past with the arrival of a Satanic group. What he should have done is ask harder questions about how the Temple could end up in the middle of town with none of the local officials knowing about it. The newspaper that brought us "Spotlight" can do better.

Categories: Main

In Bible Belt town split on immigration, passing glimpses of religious influence raise questions

Thursday, September 22, 2016

This Alabama town mirrors the US class divide on immigration https://t.co/oGy66mN2J1 pic.twitter.com/NjvnojaUFU

— CNN (@CNN) September 22, 2016

As I mentioned in a recent post, Alabama ranks as the nation's second-most religious state after Mississippi, according to Gallup.

In a different post last year, I noted that Alabama's estimated 1.2 million Southern Baptists represent a quarter of the state's 4.8 million total residents. Overall, the state's number of evangelicals tops 2 million.

So yes, as I read an in-depth CNN story out today on an Alabama town split on immigration, I wondered what role faith would play in the text.

Here's the good news: The talented writer provides glimpses of religion that make it clear she understands its importance to the community.

Here's the bad news: Those glimpses are just that — glimpses. As in "a momentary or slight appearance," to quote one of the Dictionary.com definitions. More on those glimpses in a moment.

But first, some background: Overall, it's a nice story — fair and balanced on the immigration issue itself. The CNN piece even includes a scene where a resident watches headlines on Fox News, which made me chuckle. The journalist does an excellent job of interviewing a wide variety of sources, giving each a voice and helping her audience understand where everyone is coming from. 

The story is set in Albertville, Ala., which CNN describes as "a largely white, working-class town." A quarter of its 22,000 residents are Hispanic, and immigrants make up thousands of the employees at its poultry processing plants. Five years ago, the town tried to crack down on illegal immigration, and CNN explores what has happened since.

Here's a nice scene with some excellent description from the piece: 

But it doesn't take long to see that tensions are still simmering.Stop by the basketball court where Mexican workers are shooting hoops, and you'll hear how afraid they are that Donald Trump might be president, and what it was like a few years back when people couldn't get water or electricity in their homes unless they could prove they were here legally.Sit for a moment in the Little League stands nearby, and a woman flipping through a coupon book as she leans back in a lawn chair will tell you how immigrants should stop speaking Spanish and sucking benefits from the system.Step into a shopping mall off the busy four-lane highway through town, and you'll see immigrants searching for the right words in an English class as they talk with their teacher about what foods to eat on American holidays and how fast the cashiers speak at Walmart.Cross the parking lot to visit the unemployment office, and you'll hear some people say the influx of immigrants gave the region's economy a boost, while others grumble it cost them their jobs.

But notice where the writer didn't go (at least in the text)? Don't you think a church visit might generate helpful detail for that scene?

As I mentioned, glimpses of religion show up.

For example, here:

Fox News anchors rattle off headlines on TV as Joe Lusk gets ready to dig into his breakfast. After a waitress places his plate on the table, he bows his head in prayer.The 59-year-old fence company owner is a lifelong Albertville resident. And he often stops to eat at this family-run restaurant, where a sign hanging by the front door pays tribute to "Southern living, where the tea is sweet, our words are long, the days are warm and our faith is strong."

And here:

As she sells tomatoes, okra and black-eyed peas, Weldon says she usually tries to steer clear of arguments over immigration. It's one of those issues where people never seem willing to listen or change their minds.Instead, she focuses on her children."I taught my kids to understand about different people, different ways to believe. I raised my children in church," she said. "We're not God. It's not our place to judge."

And here:

Nearby, she keeps a large Virgin of Guadalupe figure standing next to a big-screen TV.

But those glimpses do not give way to any substantial exploration of the religion angle.

Interestingly enough, an evangelical pastor and a Catholic priest are included in a scrolling collection of 14 photos at the top of the story. Below those photos are brief quotes from various people in Albertville. But neither the pastor nor the priest make the actual story. Strange.

Even in a 3,600-report such as this, a journalist must make tough decisions about what details and quotes to include. Perhaps religion didn't make the cut?

Categories: Main

The life of Howard E. Butt, Jr.: What do most readers think 'evangelist' really means?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

As many GetReligion readers may know, I grew up in Texas. One of the unfortunate side effects of my heritage is that I know more than my share of jokes about the family that built all of those H-E-B grocery stores that are a part of Lone Star state culture.

Yes, the patriarch of the family was named Howard E. Butt.

Butt was quite a man and, no matter what you may have heard, his daughters had perfectly normal names -- like Mary Elizabeth. The Butt family was known for many positive things, including the fact that under his leadership the H-E-B chain gave as much money to charities, year after year, as federal law would allow it to give.

This brings us to the second generation, led by Howard E. Butt, Jr., who died the other day. The Religion News Service obituary for this well known Texan opened like this:

(RNS) Howard E. Butt Jr., the Texas evangelist and radio personality who was expected to take over his family’s successful grocery business but instead devoted his life to Christian causes, has died. … He was 89.Butt was the former head of the H.E. Butt Foundation, which takes as its mission “the renewal of the Church,” and runs retreat programs and a Christian camp for children. He was perhaps best known, though, as the fatherly voice of one-minute radio spots, called “The High Calling of Our Daily Work,” in which he gently preached that people should make Christianity the cornerstone of their life’s work.

Once again, we are dealing with a strange use of the much-abused word “evangelist,” a topic that has been written about more than once here at GetReligion

The bottom line: There is no question that Butt was, like his father, an “evangelical.” But was he an “evangelist”? Does that word rather loaded word help readers understand this man's life work?

Be honest. When you read the word “evangelist,” what images appear in your mind? For some readers, they will think of images like the movie clip at the top of this post As I wrote nearly a decade ago, concerning this term:

Take the word "evangelist." For years, people have been applying that word to everyone from Jerry Falwell (a pastor/religious broadcaster/educator) to Pat Robertson (a religious broadcaster/political leader/educator) and a host of other folks. The term "televangelist" was created since there was a real sense in which people were using cameras and cable television the same way that evangelists, for generations, have used pulpits and rally tents.Then again, the classic, centuries-old definition of "evangelism" and "evangelist" was linked to the work of people who shared their faith and converted other people through face-to-face contact. Saying that someone was "a great evangelist" did not mean they preached evangelistic messages before hundreds or thousands of people.So what does "evangelist" mean to the average person who hears or reads it? I would think that the average person thinks of Billy Graham. 

We will get to Graham in a moment, because there is a connection.

Howard E. Butt, Jr., was, of course, a philanthropist best known for his work in Christian education, leadership and programs for children. As noted by RNS, he was active as a small-scale religious broadcaster, with a special focus on issues of Christian vocation and calling (not preaching to conversion, evangelist style). The story also mentions that, as a layman, he spoke in some revival meetings. Was he the actual preacher in these services?

The impression given was that he was the featured, professional evangelist, like Graham. Yes, it is significant that Butt served on the board of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association.

We can look for clues elsewhere. The Washington Post ran a feature on Howard E. Butt, Jr., by Patton Dodd, clearly identified as “executive director of media and communications at The H.E. Butt Family Foundation in Texas.” There are some helpful details near the top:

In the early 1960s, Howard E. Butt Jr. was both a prominent Texas business executive and a rising star in Christian preaching. On weekdays, he crisscrossed Texas helping to expand H-E-B, the booming family grocery business. On weekends, he traveled to distant U.S. cities as a preacher on the church revival circuit, appearing alongside his friend, the famed evangelist Billy Graham. …But in retrospect, the most important quality Howard E. Butt Jr. had was a touch of self-awareness. He knew the truth about himself: that he was beset, as he put it, by “all kinds of anxieties and fears.” Butt suffered from a deep and persistent depression. And he knew he needed professional help."I couldn’t tell anybody,” he later wrote. “In Baptist or evangelical circles, you didn’t flaunt your relationship with a psychiatrist; you hid it.”

If you know anything about the format of Billy Graham crusades, the picture is now coming into focus.

Graham was the evangelist, preaching the sermons that led to altar calls. Butt filled another role -- he was the layman who gave his testimony about the impact of faith on this life and, yes, on his struggle with a major source of pain in his life.

This is where, the Post piece made clear, Butt found his life's work. In particular, he is known for founding the Laity Lodge, a center providing a space for education, networking, training and other activities blending spiritual life and work in the real world. The Post piece notes:

As the modern history of Texas is written, Butt will figure prominently not in the history of business so much as the history of religion. For Christians of a certain set, he is associated with another brand: Laity Lodge, a spiritual retreat center nestled in the Frio River Canyon, a spectacular stretch of property deep in the Texas Hill Country. Butt founded Laity Lodge in 1961, and it remains a cherished destination for thousands of people.

And continuing with that theme:

Today Butt’s work seems pioneering to the point of prophetic. Modern life, he worried, leaves us frenetic, distracted from one another, from ourselves, from God. Butt remained a man of the world -- a voracious reader and learner, a convener of conversations with far-flung experts -- and his craft was creating a distant yet welcoming space within that world, a place set apart, where people can finally have enough room, time, quiet and care to know themselves and be known.

So back to the RNS obit's lede. I have, trust me, seen much, much worse examples of journalists using the term "evangelist" out of context. Maybe it could be said that Butt was a "lay evangelist," but it would take effort to describe that term.

No, the key here is that this man was -- behind the scenes -- a crucial leader in efforts to convince many religious conservatives to take seriously issues linked to mental health and depression. He was way ahead of his time and built structures that will live on.

This is what readers needed to know. I doubt that this is what most readers think of when they hit the word "evangelist."

Categories: Main

Are traditional Christian and Jewish beliefs responsible for Brexit and survival of ISIS?

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Here are two examples -- one Christian, the other Jewish -- of religion's staying power and influence over the entirety of Western culture. They're presented as reminders of why journalists need a working knowledge of religious history to fully connect the dots in today's bleeding world.

I came across the first example not long after the game-changing 9/11 Al Qaeda terrorist attacks. The second's an essay I read just recently.

Let's begin with journalist and author Robert D. Kaplan's "Warrior Politics: Why Leadership Demands a Pagan Ethos." I consider Kaplan one of the more interesting journalistic minds working today.

His book struck me as fascinating, prescient (in hindsight) and disturbing.

My fascination stemmed from its emphasis on the enormous influence that bedrock religious concepts still exert today over critical societal actions. They're there, taken for granted but subliminally directing us. This is so even if we fail to consider, as individuals or even -- tsk, tsk -- as journalists, the importance of these civilizational building blocks.

It was prescient because of what it said that relates to the quagmire we face as a nation today in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere. It was disturbing because it challenged my liberal American impulses about the limits of ethical warfare.

Oh. And, yes, I agree. "Ethical warfare" may just be the ultimate oxymoron.

Kaplan concluded that to defeat non-state terror organizations that play only by their own brutal rules required a radical change in the military tactics of Western nations, by which he meant those historically and culturally Christian.

Particularly upsetting for me was his insistence that the West's Christian-lite approach (at least in theory and liberal political rhetoric, including at the United Nations) to ethical military action hampers its ability to fight terrorism. What is needed, he argued, is a willingness to adopt a pre-Christian, compassionless pagan outlook that puts aside, as needed, Christianity's basic humanitarian thrust.

"I am not an optimist or an idealist," Kaplan wrote, in a moment of stark understatement. "... In places where the rule of law does prevail, one is expected to suffer insults without resorting to violence. But in a lawless society, a willingness to suffer insults indicates weakness that, in turn, may invite attack."

Kaplan did not suggest the wholesale slaughter of enemy populations so prevalent in the ancient world. But he did warn against self-defeating applications of Christian pacifism -- summed up in Jesus' Sermon on the Mount admonition to turn-the-other-cheek (just what Jesus meant is a scholarly discourse beyond this blog post and my abilities), and even the Augustinian Just War Doctrine.

I'm not a Christian, (nor is Kaplan) but living in a culturally Christian nation I've absorbed these beliefs and so I struggle with Kaplan's argument that a bit of pagan-like military ruthlessness can go a long way. But I think I understand his point.

Kaplan's book came to mind while reading my second example, a recent essay in the Jewish-issue oriented web magazine Mosaic on the iffy future of our current global political system of nation-states.

Writer Yoram Hazony argues that multi-state bodies and agreements such as the European Union are ultimately unstable (think Britain's Brexit vote and presidential candidate Donald Trump's criticism of international trade agreements) because of our innate tribalism.

He notes the religious origin of the West's, and by its dominance now the international community's, preference for independent nation-states. He traces it to the Hebrew Bible.

Again, it's an example a long-ago conceived religious belief still holding sway over our modern impulses.

Here's a taste of what Hazony wrote (I urge you to click on the link above to read his entire piece; his argument is complex).

For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding; and an order of peoples united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supra-national authority. ...The conflict between these two visions is as old as the West itself. The idea that the political order should be based on independent nations was an important feature of ancient Israelite thought as reflected in the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”). And although Western civilization, for most of its history, has been dominated by dreams of universal empire, the presence of the Bible at the heart of this civilization has ensured that the idea of the self-determining, independent nation would be revived time and again.

Why, Hazony continues, is the Hebrew Bible so concerned with Jewish national independence?

In a word, history, something that still plays a huge role in contemporary Jewish religious and political life (think Passover, Purim, and, of course, the Holocaust, for starters).

The world of Israel’s prophets was dominated by a succession of imperial powers: Egypt, Babylonia, Assyria, and Persia, each giving way to the next. Despite their differences, each of these empires sought to impose a universal political order on mankind as a whole, the gods having sent them to suppress needless disputes among peoples and to create a unified international realm in which men could live together in peace and prosperity. ...And yet, despite the obvious economic advantages of an Egyptian or Babylonian peace that would unify humanity, the Bible was born out of a deep-seated opposition to that very aim. To Israel’s prophets, Egypt was “the house of bondage,” and they spared no words in deploring the bloodshed and cruelty involved in imperial conquest and the imperial manner of governing, its recourse to slavery and murder and its expropriation of women and property. All of this, the Israelite prophets argued, stemmed from Egypt’s idolatry -- from its submission to gods who would justify any sacrifice so long as it advanced the extension of the imperial realm of peace and kept the production of grain running at maximum capacity. ...The Bible thus puts a new political conception on the table: a state of a single people that is united, self-governing, and uninterested in bringing its neighbors under its own rule. This state is governed not by foreigners responsible to a ruler in a distant land but by kings and governors, priests and prophets, drawn from the ranks of the nation itself: elites that are, for just this reason, thought to be better able to stay in touch with the needs of their own people, their “brothers,” especially the less fortunate among them.

That's the nut of Hazony's piece. Again, it should be read in its entirety to fully grasp his argument. Here's the link again.

Not gonna do that?

Then at least keep in mind these words from the renowned scholar of comparative religion Huston Smith: "Transcendence takes the initiative at every turn; in creating the world, in instantiating itself in human beings, and in shaping civilizations through its revelations -- revelations that set civilizations in motion and establish their trajectories."

Agree? Disagree? Let me know below.

IMAGE: Western Christian painting of the Sermon on the Mount.

Categories: Main

Preacher foot forward: RNS gives mini-sermon on Sikh who found accused bomber

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Why write a long intro?

Let's just get to the preachy lede of a story in the Religion News Service on the capture of a bombing suspect:

(RNS) The man who led police to the bombing suspect in New York and New Jersey was none other than another Asian immigrant.Harinder Singh Bains, a native of India who practices the Sikh faith,  said he saw Ahmad Khan Rahami "right in front of my face" and made a call to the police after matching the man’s image with the one Bains saw on TV.Rahami, who is accused of placing the bombs that exploded Saturday (Sept. 17) in the Chelsea section of Manhattan and in Seaside Park, N.J., was sleeping in the doorway of Bains’ bar in Linden, N.J., when Bains spotted him.

It's too bad RNS chose to put its preacher foot forward, because the article does have some virtues. It plugs Bains' action into presidential politics, or tries to. It narrates the police takedown of Rahami. And it tells a little about the Sikh faith -- though, in my opinion, too little.

The RNS article quotes Bains saying that he himself could have mistaken for the perpetrator: "After an attack, we should target people based on evidence, not their faith or their country of origin or their accent."

He doesn't elaborate, but RNS adds that "Sikhs can often be distinguished by their turbans and beards." It also says a half-million Americans belong to the faith, as do 25 million people worldwide.

Is that enough to help understand Sikhs? Doubtful. Imagine an article saying that Catholics number 1.2 billion worldwide and that their priests typically wear black clothes with white plastic collars. Such a story would be a simultaneous phantom and caricature.

You wouldn't have to get long and windy on the basics of the faith. When a half-dozen Sikhs were gunned down in Wisconsin in 2012, I provided these paragraphs.

Sikh beliefs – their religion was founded in south Asia five centuries ago – actually blend beliefs of Islam and Hinduism. Sikhs are monotheists, like Muslims, Jews and Christians, but they believe in reincarnation, like Hindus. They were once led by gurus, but their highest authority is now their scriptures, called the Guru Granth Sahib.They are proud of having the fifth-largest religion, with 23-24 million worldwide. The U.S. has at least a half-million Sikhs, including about 400 in South Florida.American Sikhs like to stress how their religion teaches American values: work, family, egalitarianism, freedom of religion. As Sunday's shooting shows, however, not everyone gets the message.

Would that have been too much for RNS? Probably not. Their story is only about 450 words. And it is, after all, the Religion News Service.

Sikhs themselves abound in websites like this one -- with lucid, understandable explanations.

To me, though, the more annoying part of the RNS piece is still the heavy-handed theme: "None other than another Asian immigrant." It all but trumpets: "Take that, Donald Trump!"

And just in case it isn’t painfully clear, RNS adds:

Bains’ identity reverberated on the campaign trail when GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump called for police profiling of people from the Muslim world. Trump also touted his plan to stem immigration to the U.S.On Tuesday morning, Bains released a statement that said: "As a Sikh American, I realize that I could have been mistaken for the perpetrator. I want to remind Americans that after an attack, we should target people based on evidence, not their faith or their country of origin or their accent."Bains said that even though it hasn’t happened to him, he knows of Sikh friends who are taunted on the streets by people who mistake them as Muslims, and some have even been attacked.

Now, I'm not denying that Sikhs face prejudice -- even here in South Florida, home to a wide range of faiths and nationalities. At a memorial service for those shooting victims, one thing that stuck in my mind was an anecdote by the main speaker, Narinder Jolly.

He told of being accosted by three young men who harassed him because of his beard and turban. "I am not a Muslim," Jolly says he told them. "But even if I were, what you are doing is wrong."

No, the problem here is RNS' heavy-handed effort to stick this specifically on a presidential candidate. Sounds like they're saying, "See, Donald? If the U.S. had no Asian-American citizens, no one would have caught the bomber." By the same token, he might say back -- rightly or wrongly -- that if all Asian immigrants were kept out, we wouldn't need to turn in potential terrorists.

At least RNS allows Bains to say that his motives don’t belong to Sikhs alone:

"I did what I think every American would have done," he said. "My neighbor would have done the same thing. Any Jewish, Christian, Sikh, Muslim. Anybody would have done the same thing."I’m from Sikh faith," he added. "I’ve been taught always stand up against the atrocities, any kind of persecution."

That may not be a sermon, but non-Sikhs can easily add an "Amen" to it.

Thumb: Graphic of the Khanda, the main symbol of the Sikh faith. Created by Jujhar Pannu via Wikimedia. Used by permission (CC BY-SA 3.0).

 

Categories: Main

How do you report on 'Muslims Get Out' sign? Interview diner owner who put it up, of course

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Quote the knucklehead.

If that's not made clear in modern-day Journalism 101, it should be.

Often, your GetReligionistas will post a critique of a one-sided news story that fails to give an adequate voice to one side. Inevitably, somebody who thinks the side that wasn't represented is stupid or bigoted or racist will object and suggest the other side doesn't deserve to be quoted.

I hate to be the one to break the bad news, but that's not journalism. It's advocacy. Unfortunately, depending on the subject, there's a lot of mixing of those two (journalism and advocacy) in many media reports these days.

In recent months, we've seen a bunch of slanted, squishy reporting on the topic of "Islamophobia." Read past posts here, here, here, here and here if you happened to miss them.

So my expectations for fair, impartial coverage wasn't sky-high when I came across a Minneapolis Star-Tribune story on a small-town business owner putting up a "Muslims Get Out" sign.

The Star-Tribune team surprised me, though, with an evenhanded, fact-based approach:

A “Muslims Get Out” sign in front of a small-town dining spot in southern Minnesota will remain, the owner said Tuesday, despite the business being targeted by what he said was hate-inspired vandalism.Dan Ruedinger said he put up the message this week in front of Treats Family Restaurant and Ice Cream Parlor in Lonsdale soon after a stabbing rampage inside a St. Cloud mall over the weekend that the FBI is investigating as a possible act of terrorism.Ruedinger said he’s “had enough” and is “standing up” to all the violence that extremists have inspired around the world.

Keep reading, and the Star-Tribune notes that a meeting between Ruedinger and a Council on American-Islamic Relations official did not go well. The newspaper gives the CAIR official an opportunity to voice his objections and concerns to the sign and also quotes other people in town who have a problem with the sign.

But most impressively, the story allows the business owner to make his case — free of smirking or wisecracking on the paper's part:

Ruedinger said he didn’t mean to offend anyone with his sign. “Our problem isn’t with the entire Muslim population,” he said after meeting with Hussein. “It’s with the extremists and the nut jobs.”He said his message is not that he is turning away Muslims or anyone else as patrons.“Anyone who wants to come in here can,” he said. “No matter their ethnicity or race, if they come in here and be nice, I don’t care what their race is.”

Now, if a person really doesn't intend to offend anyone and really doesn't have a problem with the entire Muslim population, then he doesn't put up a sign with a blanket message such as "Muslims Get Out." Right?

But readers can come to that conclusion on their own. It's not the newspaper's call to make.

The Star-Tribune did its job: It quoted the knucklehead.

 

 

Categories: Main

Can terrorists act in the name of religion, or do they follow ‘political’ ideologies, alone?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Throughout the era defined by 9/11, most journalists in the West have struggled to follow two basic concepts while doing their work.

The first concept is, of course: Islam is a religion of peace

The second would, in most cases, be stated something like this: There is no one Islam. The point is to stress the perfectly obvious, and accurate, fact that Islam is not a monolith. Islam in Saudi Arabia is quite different from the faith found in Iran. Islam in Indonesia is quite different from the faith found in Pakistan. There are competing visions of Islam in lands such as Egypt, Turkey and Afghanistan.

The problem with these two concepts is that they clash. Note that Islam, singular, is a religion of peace. But which Islam is that, since there is no one Islam? In the end, many journalists appear to have decided that wise people in the White House or some other center of Western intellectual life get to decide which Islam is the true Islam. The fact that millions of Muslims, of various kinds, find that condescending (or worse) is beside the point.

At times, it appears that the true Islam is a religion and the false Islam is a political ideology. When one looks at history, of course, Muslims see a truly Islamic culture as one unified whole. There is, simply stated, no separation of mosque and state in a majority Muslim culture. The mosque is at the center of all life.

You can see all of these ideas lurking in the background when American politicos argue about what is, and what is not, “terrorism.” As the old saying goes, one man’s “freedom fighter” is another man’s “terrorist.”

As it turns out, the word “terrorism” has a very specific meaning for Western elites. Is the same definition accepted among the minority of Muslims who have adopted a radicalized version of Islam?

Here is what the conflict looks like in practice, in a St. Cloud Times story about that attack the other day in a Minnesota shopping mall. Readers are told that St. Cloud Police Chief Blair Anderson:

… said the attacker, who was armed with a knife, reportedly made references to Allah during the attack and asked at least one person whether they were Muslim. But Anderson pointedly declined to call the attacks an act of terrorism, saying the motive isn't yet known.Like the police, Minnesota FBI spokesman Kyle Loven declined to say Sunday if investigators believe the attack was a terrorist act. 

In other words, the attacker may have clearly stated that he was attacking infidels in the name of Islam -- but that was Islam the religion. His acts could not be called “terrorism” because, well, religion isn’t a real motive. Things become real when they are linked to organizations that have clearly stated political goals in the eyes of Western leaders.

There is that question, again: Is there a form of Islam practiced anywhere that recognizes this kind of Western division between religious truth and political life?

The Los Angeles Times, to its credit, has written an entire news report about this issue, under this headline: “The politics of calling an act of violence 'terrorism': Why some people hold back.”

As you would expect, this story begins with politicians defining the term, as in the debates the other night between New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (the bombing in Manhattan was “obviously an act of terrorism”) and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (the was “a very bad incident” and “an intentional act”).

Donald Trump then did that Trump thing that he does. President Barack Obama then did that Obama thing that he does. World without end. Amen.

But here is the crucial part of the story, from the perspective of most journalists. Readers need to understand this information to grasp why our news coverage of these kinds of events is what it is.

Federal law defines terrorism as an intentional act that endangers life and is designed to coerce or intimidate the population, influence government policy or affect the conduct of the government. In other words, for an attack to qualify as terrorism, it has to be more than just terrifying. It requires a broader political motive.By that definition, De Blasio had a point. The bombing, which occurred in the neighborhood of Chelsea, injured 29 people and spread fear. But in the immediate aftermath, before there was a suspect, it was difficult to say much with any certainty.“How is someone rational supposed to call it ‘terrorism’ without knowing who did it, let alone their motive???” tweeted Glenn Greenwald, the journalist and lawyer who has reported extensively on U.S. and British surveillance.

Once again, religious faith alone is not a real thing, a motive that leads someone to commit acts of terror -- when viewed from a Western point of view. Actions become real, they become acts of "terror," when they attempt to influence something that is real, such as “government policy” or the “conduct of government.” 

The bottom line: Killing infidels, or other Muslims who reject a radicalized view of the faith, is not enough to make these kinds of acts real, live examples of legally defined “terror.” They become real when linked to motives that American officials and most journalists define as real -- which means things that are political.

Is that clear, now? Then read on:

Even Monday, after Ahmad Khan Rahami, 28, was identified as a suspect and taken into custody, it was unclear whether he drew inspiration from a foreign terrorist group, had direct links with such a group or had some other motive. Investigators said there was no evidence that he was part of a broader terrorist cell.This year, when the Los Angeles Times used government and police reports, terrorism databases, news accounts and independent reporting to compile the worldwide toll of terrorism deaths in the month of April, classifying violence sometimes proved difficult.In some cases, there was simply not enough information to say that a killing wasn't something other than terrorism -- a personal dispute or the work of criminals who aren't motivated by ideology.

Now there is this, care of The Washington Post and other media reports:

In a journal found on him after he was captured, Ahmad Rahami, the 28-year-old suspected bomber, had written that, God willing, “the sounds of the bombs will be heard in the streets,” according to an FBI complaint.

Ah, but did he intend to influence the polls leading up to Election Day?

Categories: Main

'Respect the culture' of family of black man shot dead by Tulsa police — but what culture?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Once again, an unarmed black man has been shot dead by a police officer — this time in Tulsa, Okla.

Once again, there's a graphic video of the shooting.

And once again, there's a flood of media attention and speculation concerning exactly what happened and who's to blame.

The local newspaper — the Tulsa World — has been all over the story of Terence Crutcher's tragic death, which dominates today's front page:

Front page of today's Tulsa World pic.twitter.com/Bb0T6WnIcI

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) September 20, 2016

In the "Family requests peaceful protests" story, there's a quote that caught my attention — and made me wonder if there might be a religion ghost:

Tiffany Crutcher asked for any protests that result from viewing the video, which she called “quite disturbing,” to be carried out peacefully.“Just know that our voices will be heard,” she said. “The video will speak for itself. Let’s protest. Let’s do what we have to do, but let’s just make sure that we do it peacefully, to respect the culture of (the Crutcher family).”

I wonder: What exactly is meant by the term "culture" in that quote? Might it have something to do with the family's religion?

That seems highly likely, particularly given a later quote in the story. Here, the dead man's twin sister responds to a voice on the police video who remarks that her brother looks like "one bad dude":

“You all want to know who that big, ‘bad dude’ was?” Tiffany Crutcher asked.“That big, ‘bad dude’ was a father. That big, ‘bad dude’ was a son. That big, ‘bad dude’ was enrolled at Tulsa Community College, just wanting to make us proud. That big, ‘bad dude’ loved God. That big, ‘bad dude’ was at church singing, with all of his flaws, every week. That big, ‘bad dude’ — that’s who he was,” she said.

A caption that ran with a photo accompanying the story in today's Oklahoman — which reprinted the World report — identified the man's father as "the Rev. Joey Crutcher" but gave no additional details concerning him.

In a related column on the front page of today's World, Ginnie Graham described Terence Crutcher this way:

The father of four came from a religious family, and he remained a devout Christian — singing each Sunday in church.

Perhaps I've missed a story along these lines, but I'd love more in-depth details on the family's faith and its role in loved ones' response to Terence Crutcher's death. I can't help but think that religion is a big part of the family's "culture."

Categories: Main

Mosque burning: Orlando Sentinel writes a sensitive follow-up, with some flaws

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Shunning clichés. Following up a tragedy. Getting the human angle. The Orlando Sentinel's story on the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, which was set on fire the previous weekend, has several strengths. And a few flaws.

The sensitive piece shuns the clichés that infect many such follow-ups on terrorism. The people talk like people, not talking-head spokespersons. It's also honest about the terrorist acts that allow some people to think they have a right to lash out at all Muslims.

On the other hand, the paper talks about supportive neighbors without talking to them. And I raised an eyebrow when I realized the lede came from a Friday service before the fire:

FORT PIERCE -- As ceiling fans churned muggy August air through the mosque where Pulse shooter Omar Mateen once touched his forehead to the carpet in prayer, assistant imam Adel Nefzi preached that a sincere follower of God harms none.He thundered that no man should fear the hand or tongue of a true Muslim.It had been two months since Mateen walked into an Orlando nightclub and opened fire on a roomful of dancers, killing 49. And before the prayer service began and worshippers were still trickling into the Islamic Center of Fort Pierce, Nefzi pondered the weighty task ahead of him."It's a heavy responsibility to speak about religion," said Nefzi, 53. "You are always afraid that people, they did not understand the right message."

It's much later that the Sentinel divulges the service took place last month -- after Mateen attacked the Pulse nightclub in June, but before the fire on the 15th anniversary of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

To me, it looks like the writer simply wrote from unused notes, then updated the story. 

Not that the work isn’t worthwhile. Look again at the telling details and the introspective quote in that block quote. The paper also notes how the mosque has posted photos of the fire damage, and that it has launched a fund drive to cover the expected $100,000 repair job. It even reveals that the building is a familiar structure in Fort Pierce, having once housed a Presbyterian church.

I respect how the Sentinel not only reports that Mateen attended the Islamic Center, but brings up a previous case as well:

However, this isn't the first time mosque regulars have felt suspicion hover over their congregation. Another former attendee, Moner Mohammad Abusalha, became known as the first American suicide bomber in Syria after driving a truck packed with explosives into a restaurant in 2014.Those who pray at the mosque say they, like anyone, were appalled that Abusalha, 22, and Mateen, 29, had ties to their community."I can understand people's frustration with two people coming out of this area having committed such horrendous acts," Port St. Lucie entrepreneur Mohammad Malik said. "The thing is that these two radicalized individually, and it wasn't done through the mosque."

So the paper doesn't cover up the previous case, and it allows a local Muslim to defend the mosque. And it's good to get it from a "regular" Muslim, not an imam or an officer of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (although one is quoted elsewhere). 

That said, it would have been worthwhile to ask Malik how he knew Abusalha had been radicalized individually. Did he know the man? Was it because Malik hadn't heard any teachings at the mosque condoning terrorism? Something else?

Another question: The Sentinel twice says the surrounding community has shown support for the Islamic Center. Where are the details? 

The story quotes member Sarah Zaidi:

Since fire ravaged the place she once worshipped, Zaidi, 28, has been defending the mosque on social media and rallying people to donate. Though hate grabs headlines, there has also been an outpouring of goodwill from both Muslims and non-Muslims, she said."We're going to stand as one," she said. "The point is that we have freedom of religion, and we will keep rebuilding as much as we have to, because that's our right."

The article also points out a smoke-damaged bulletin board "where the imam had pinned notes of support and solidarity sent to the mosque since the Pulse shooting." What did they say? Can the writers be tracked down? How about asking Adel Nefzi to read some of the names on the supportive notes?

The Sentinel writer could have gotten one source just by watching the video by TV station WPBF, as you did if you clicked the thumb above. The video has a neighbor, Jean Cranshaw, saying on camera: "These are people. They're not our enemies. They're our neighbors and our friends and our co-workers."

Updates, as I say, are a great idea. Too often, mainstream media dash from crisis to crisis, without telling us how the crises are resolved. But it's always better to quote people directly than to have someone else quote them. And if you're going to set a scene in a follow-up, it's kind of vital that the scene takes place after the event.

Categories: Main

Ahmad Khan Rahami: The New York Times offers early clues to a life transformed

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

While politicians keep arguing about what is and what is not a bomb and what is and what is not a “motive” for terrorism, most American journalists -- at least in the print media -- have settled into a somewhat predictable pattern for covering the basic facts of these kinds of events.

That was a compliment.

There was a time when reporters seemed so anxious to avoid the religion angles in these stories that they actually buried or ignored basic facts -- which almost certainly led to increased distrust among readers. We are talking about stories in which a a suspect’s name or family history was hidden deep in the text or reporting that ignored details provided by witnesses, such as whether attackers shouted religious references or asked victims if they were Muslims.

At this point -- perhaps after waves of street-level violence in Europe and elsewhere -- reporters have gone back to writing basic stories. That doesn’t mean that potential links to radicalized forms of Islam dominate the headlines and the tops of news reports. It does mean that essential facts are covered and, often, they are linked to human details that help them make sense.

Consider the New York Times second-day feature story about the man arrested -- after a gun battle with police -- following the disturbing series of attacks in and around New York City. Just look at the complex matrix of materials at the very top of this story.

He presided behind the counter of a storefront New Jersey fried chicken restaurant, making his home with his family in an apartment above it. To some of his friends, Ahmad Khan Rahami was known as Mad, an abridgment of his name rather than a suggestion of his manner, and they liked that he gave them free food when they were short on money.Beyond that, his other known obsession was souped-up Honda Civics that he liked to race. In recent years, though, some friends noticed a marked change in his personality and religious devotion after what they believed was a trip to Afghanistan, where he and his relatives are from.In fact, a federal official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said Mr. Rahami had actually traveled to Pakistan, for three months in 2011 and, most recently, to Quetta, for nearly a year, where he stayed with family, returning to the United States in March 2014. While there, he is believed to have married.Back in New Jersey, he and his relatives had a fractious relationship with neighbors and the police in Elizabeth, N.J., because of the always-open hours of their restaurant and the rackety customers it attracted. The longstanding friction led to the Rahami family’s filing a lawsuit in 2011 against the city and its Police Department in which they alleged that they were harassed and intimidated because of their religion. They accused a local businessman of complaining to them, “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”

Note the reference to the lawsuit. I assume, since there is no clear attribution, that paperwork linked to this lawsuit was the source of the “Muslims make too much trouble in this country.”

That’s strong, logical reporting, done by shoe leather or online research.

At the same time, the early references to the trips abroad, to potentially troubling destinations, and to the suspect’s possible marriage are strong indicators of forces that may have helped change his life.

The Times story does a fine job of placing this transformed Rahami in the context of his earlier life in New Jersey. The First American Fried Chicken franchise emerges as a poignant hub for much of the action.

Here is the section of the story -- packed with details -- that hooked me.

Flee Jones, 27, grew up with Ahmad Rahami, and when they were young played basketball with him. As an adult, Mr. Jones, a rapper, was a regular at the chicken place, where the food was plain but cheap. He said the Rahamis would let him and his friends host rap battles in the back of the restaurant. Mr. Jones helped write a song called “Chicken Joint” about the restaurant.At this point, little is known of Mr. Rahami’s ideology or politics. He used to wear Western-style clothing, and customers said he gave little indication of his heritage.Around four years ago, though, Mr. Rahami disappeared for a while. Mr. Jones said one of the younger Rahami brothers told him that he had gone to Afghanistan. When he returned, some patrons noticed a certain transformation. He grew a beard and exchanged his typical wardrobe of T-shirts and sweatpants for traditional Muslim robes. He began to pray in the back of the store.His previous genial bearing turned more stern.“It’s like he was a completely different person,” Mr. Jones said. “He got serious and completely closed off.”

From rap battles to possible bomb training, from T-shirts to robes. He prayed in the back of the store. Alone? Was his only Muslim community online?

The tug between the past and the present continues throughout the story. There were complications with bringing his pregnant wife to America. There are questions about where he learned the skills that led to the bombs.

In other words, there are unanswered questions. These holes in the story are clearly described and placed in the narrative.

At what point did the funny, humble, helpful young man with a string of girls transform into someone else? Here is another long, crucial passage:

“He’s a little bit of a wraith, a ghost,” a law enforcement official said.There is no evidence yet that Mr. Rahami received any military training abroad, the federal official said, but investigators remain intent on learning more about his time overseas. “Where did he really go and what did he do overseas that a kid who lived a normal New Jersey life came back as a sophisticated bomb maker and terrorist?” the official said.Besides his most recent trip to Quetta, Mr. Rahami visited Karachi, Pakistan, in 2005. Both of those cities’ reputations have become entwined with the militant groups who have sheltered there: Karachi as a haven for the Pakistani Taliban and Al Qaeda, and Quetta as the headquarters of the exiled Afghan Taliban leadership. But both cities are also home to generations of Afghans who have fled violence in their home country.

There is no evidence "yet."

There is much, much more. It’s clear that this family’s life in America may have seemed normal, but there were also tensions with people around them. There is a chance that the whole family grew more tense and angry.

As always there is a key question here: Which came first? The tensions with neighbors or the anger? At this point, the Times story simply gives readers key facts on both sides of this equation. Read it all and you will feel the tensions.

Let me end with one question that may sound strange. However, I ask this question after some interesting interactions in the past year of so with Muslims at food trucks in lower Manhattan (where I am a regular customer seeking falafel during Eastern Orthodox fasting seasons).

Concerning the First American Fried Chicken franchise: Was the fried chicken there halal?

FIRST IMAGE: Posted online by First American Fried Chicken.

Categories: Main

That Faith Counts study: Religion is bigger than Facebook, Google and Apple combined

Monday, September 19, 2016

Whenever I teach religion reporting to college students, one of the first things I do is hand them a copy of an article by the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. It posed the question of what is of greater interest to Americans: Religion or sports?

Many people would choose sports but no, Americans in 1992 spent $56.7 billion on religion compared to $4 billion on sports, he wrote. I love giving people copies of Cornell’s piece.

Yes, it's old news. However, my colleague tmatt has written about its continuing impact. I have mourned the lack of a similar article with more recent data.

Until now. Recently, the Washington Post’s religion blog Articles of Faith told us there’s a new study out. The headline: “Study: Religion contributes more to the U.S. economy than Facebook, Google and Apple combined.”

I bet that got peoples’ attention.

Religion is big business. Just how big? A new study, published Wednesday by a father-daughter researcher team, says religion is bigger than Facebook, Google and Apple -- combined.The article in the Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion said that the annual revenues of faith-based enterprises -- not just churches but hospitals, schools, charities and even gospel musicians and halal food makers -- is more than $378 billion a year. And that’s not counting the annual shopping bonanza motivated by Christmas.Georgetown University’s Brian Grim and the Newseum’s Melissa Grim -- in a study sponsored by an organization called Faith Counts, which promotes the value of religion -- produced a 31-page breakdown of all the ways religion contributes to the U.S. economy.

Take a guess where the bulk of that money is concentrated. Journalists, there is a strong news hook here when it comes to recent church-state controversies.

The largest chunk of that $378 billion tally comes from faith-based health-care systems. Religious groups run many of the hospitals in the United States; Catholic health systems alone reportedly account for 1 in 6 hospital beds in the country.Then there are churches and congregations themselves. Based on prior censuses of U.S. bodies of worship, the Grims looked at 344,894 congregations, from 236 different religious denominations (217 of them Christian, and others ranging from Shinto to Tao to Zoroastrian). Collectively, those congregations count about half the American population as members. The average annual income for a congregation, the study said, is $242,910.

I looked up the study (there’s no charge but you have to register on IJRR’s site) and learned that the $378 billion figure was the lower estimate. The highest was $4 trillion, almost one-fourth of America’s $17.9 trillion GDP (in 2015).

That’s pretty amazing news, I thought, considering there’s a sizable minority of people in this country who’d like religion removed from the public square. Surely lots of newspapers will be reporting on this.

Well, not quite. The Deseret News did its own (and much longer) piece a day before the Post’s came out. The Daily Mail also did a piece, as did The Blaze. So did U.S. News & World Report, which posed an interesting question

A new study takes a look at the economically intertwined and potentially fraught relationship between America's two historical masters: God and money.The country's trillion-dollar religion industry provides millions of jobs and financial, emotional and spiritual support to even more people across the country. And yet America is becoming less religious, threatening this sacred pillar of the domestic economy.

Is this study indeed, as U.S. News & World Report suggests, a reflection of the heyday of religiously involved Americans and something that may drastically change in coming generations? I’ve always thought that people who oppose any kind of religious involvement in public affairs haven’t a clue of the extent of religious groups’ involvement in, say, feeding and housing the homeless and mentally ill. Oh, and what America’s streets may be like if such groups lose their non-profit status and are forced to close.

After all, the study says, religious groups fund more than 1.5 million social programs, including 78,000 for mental illness alone. That is three times the number of Starbucks outlets worldwide. 

But other than some religious outlets, those were nearly all the secular publications I saw pick the story up. Missing was the Associated Press, which mystifies me in that the study was unveiled at the National Press Club, hardly an obscure spot. If I missed something, please put some URLs in our comments pages.

The scanty coverage goes to show that Cornell’s quote about media ignoring religion’s greater appeal is just as true 22 years later. He said:

Newly gathered comparative statistics in the 1990s on two key yardsticks of human interest -- financial and personal involvement -- show religion ahead of sports. Yet religion gets only a tiny fraction of media notice compared with the huge volume of attention lavished on sports.

That's news copy. Want to hear Cornell's own voice? As he once told tmatt (and you can sense Cornell is a bit upset):

"You know, usually, where people put their time and money, that's where their interests are," Cornell said. "Newspapers give a great deal of space to professional sports ... [Americans] put into the local and national churches much greater amounts of money than they do into professional sports. And that money is their work. That's them. That's a projection of their own lives. "They are putting much more time and money into religion than they are into sports-and sports are getting the vast displays on television and in the newspapers. Whole sections of the newspaper. ... Newspapers' attention and space are supposed to be geared to people's interest. Right?"

Well. Watch the above video and read the study. Then ask why this wasn't much bigger news.

Categories: Main

Time offers a little more insight on friendship between Donald Trump and Paula White

Monday, September 19, 2016

Latest: my story on @Paula_White, the pastor who has long prayed with @realDonaldTrump https://t.co/Q4wQ5Ae5nB

— Elizabeth Dias (@elizabethjdias) September 14, 2016

A new story by Elizabeth Dias, the Time magazine religion and politics correspondent, offers more insight into the friendship between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and televangelist Paula White.

Overall, it's a well-done report, although it sparked a question or two that I'll pose below.

First, let's check out Time's lede:

Donald Trump’s son Eric was glowing when he sat down at a Cleveland restaurant next to Orlando pastor Paula White. “Your prayer did it, Paula,” Eric told her. The younger Trump’s teleprompter had broken the night before as he prepared to address the Republican National Convention. “I thought I was going to have to wing 15 minutes to them all,” he said. “You prayed, and the prompter went back on.”Eric Trump is not the only member of his family who has come to rely on White, 50, a popular televangelist who believes that intercessory prayer can have an immediate impact on shaping events. After she saw Eric, she went to her room in the Trump campaign’s Cleveland hotel, where she spent the next four hours praying for Donald Trump as he prepared for his prime-time convention address. Then at the candidate’s invitation, she met the Republican nominee, his wife Melania and 10-year old son Barron for another circle of prayer in their room.“I do remember asking God to give him his words and his mind, and to use him—that it would not be his words but God’s words, that he would just really be sensitive to the Holy Spirit,” White recalled in an interview with TIME weeks later. “I probably [interceded] against any plot or plan or weapon of the enemy to interfere with the plan or the will of God.” That evening, White rode in Trump’s car with his family to the arena.

Keep reading, and the Trump-White story is relatively brief — less than 750 words. That's different from the deep dive that Dias earlier produced on "Donald Trump's Prosperity Preachers." You may recall, too, that I praised the Time writer's profile of Mark Burns ("Meet Donald Trump's Top Pastor") back in July. 

In her previous story, Dias asked White about the prosperity gospel:

Theologically, the belief that God wants people to be rich is controversial. Prosperity preachers often interpret Jesus’ teachings about abundant life in Christ financially, and that has earned them a bad name in many evangelical circles. White says her message is not “all about the money,” but a holistic gospel message of “well-being and opportunity,” which also addresses suffering. “How can you create jobs for people who want to work?” she says. “If you want to call that prosperity, yes, I believe in prosperity.”

For more insight on that angle, see former Time religion correspondent Richard Ostling's excellent GetReligion post from July on "The mystery of Donald Trump’s religion: Inspired by Peale, or by Paula White?"

Back to the Trump-White story: I like the "slice of life" nature of this piece. The behind-the-scenes anecdotes from the Republican National Convention offer insight that I have not seen elsewhere. Moreover, Time presents the concept of intercessory prayer in an impartial, non-snotty way (trust me, that's not always the case in mainstream media reports of this kind). Dias' approach allow readers to form their own judgments, free of editorialization on the magazine's part.

Moreover, the Time report provides enough context to show where this scenario fits into the overall context of Trump's 2016 religious hits and misses as well White's own personal and pastoral travails. But Dias avoids turning this piece into another treatise on the prosperity gospel.

After reading the opening section, I did find myself wondering: How do you know this? In other words, as an old-school newspaper editor might ask, where's the attribution? Perhaps the rules are different for a magazine.

Here's what I mean: If the reporter actually witnessed the scenes described in the opening paragraphs, then no "he said" or "she said" is needed. But if the reporter is relying on somebody else's recollection — in this case, White's — shouldn't Time spell that out as clearly as possible.

Yes, that might make for a more clunky opening (my quick rewrite below):

Donald Trump’s son Eric was glowing when he sat down at a Cleveland restaurant next to Orlando pastor Paula White, as White recalls it. “Your prayer did it, Paula,” she said Eric told her. The younger Trump’s teleprompter had broken the night before as he prepared to address the Republican National Convention. “I thought I was going to have to wing 15 minutes to them all,” she said he remarked. “You prayed, and the prompter went back on.”Eric Trump is not the only member of his family who has come to rely on White, 50, a popular televangelist who believes that intercessory prayer can have an immediate impact on shaping events. After she saw Eric, she said she went to her room in the Trump campaign’s Cleveland hotel, where she said she spent the next four hours praying for Donald Trump as he prepared for his prime-time convention address. Then at the candidate’s invitation, she said she met the Republican nominee, his wife Melania and 10-year old son Barron for another circle of prayer in their room.

What do you think? Would such attribution add credibility to the report? Or were you OK with the original?

Time makes clear that the writer sought feedback from the Trumps, and the candidate even released a statement — which speaks to his high regard for White, since he's not known as someone who cooperates with the news media:

“Paula is a person of great faith and accomplishment. She has been a tremendous friend and I am grateful for her guidance and support,” Trump told TIME in a statement.

My only other question: The story refers to White's congregation as "a non-denominational church in Orlando that leans pentecostal." Shouldn't "pentecostal" be capitalized there? Or am I missing something?

Categories: Main

Dear editors at The New York Times: Vladimir Putin is a Russian, but Putin is not Russia

Monday, September 19, 2016

As you would expect, quite a few GetReligion readers have asked for my take on the recent New York Times analysis piece about Russia and the Orthodox Church that ran under this headline: “In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines With Firepower.”

Now, the editorial powers that be at the Gray Lady did not label this sprawling piece as a work of analysis, but that is what it was.

It was packed with all kinds of material that Orthodox people could argue about for hours (members of my flock, especially Russians, love a good argument). In many crucial passages, the Times team didn’t bother to let readers know who they were quoting — which usually means that they are quoting themselves or quoting beloved advocacy sources over and over and over and they didn't want to point that out with attribution clauses.

Thus, I am not going to try to dissect this piece, in part because (1) I am an Orthodox Christian and (2) I spend quite a bit of time hanging out with Russians and with other Orthodox Christians who hang out with Russians. But I do want to share one big idea.

You see, I hear people talking about Vladimir V. Putin quite a bit. I would divide these people into at least three groups.

* First, there are the people who consider him a corrupt, brutal strongman, at best, and a tyrant at worst. 

* Second, there are people who do not admire Putin at all, but they enjoy the fact that he gets under the skin of liberals and post-liberals here in the West. Putin is, in other words, a Russian and he drives elites in the West a bit mad.

* Third, there are Orthodox people who appreciate the fact that Putin -- for whatever reasons -- is defending some (repeat “SOME”) of the teachings of the Orthodox faith, whether he sincerely believes these moral doctrines or not. Of course, Putin's sins against Orthodoxy on many other issues are perfectly obvious.

Now, the tricky thing is that most of my Orthodox friends who closely follow events in and around Russia are in all three of these camps at the same time.

This brings me to the main point of this post: American journalists (and perhaps even American diplomats) need to understand that Putin is currently the leader of the Russian state, but he is not Russia.

Sometimes, in other words, it helps to separate Putin from Russia and Russian from Putin. This is especially true when considering the ancient ties (troubling to many people, religious and secular, in the West) between Mother Russia and the Orthodox Christian Faith.

Thus, there are things that Putin does because he’s Putin and there are things that he does because he knows that these actions will affirm what many Russians believe about Russia and the world around them. Thus, these actions make sense to him. Putin recognizes that they are in his self interest, whether he personally is committed to them or not.

Now, if you read the Times piece you will see that the big idea is that Russia does not want to become Europe. This clash causes quite a bit of conflict, especially in the historically crucial city of Kiev (think Baptism of Rus’ in 988) -- caught between western Ukraine, that leans toward Europe, and eastern Ukraine, with its close ties to Russia.

What are the key issues here? Read the article and look for open of implied references to abortion, gay rights and issues linked to marriage and family.

So, are these matters of faith and doctrine (and, yes, public policy) “Putin things,” “Orthodox things” or “ancient Christian things”? The answers are "maybe," "yes" and "yes."

As you ponder that puzzle, please consider this passage from the Didache, one of the earliest -- if not the earliest -- statements of ancient Christian moral theology, written between 60 and 120 A.D.

The Second Commandment: Grave Sin Forbidden. And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not commit pederasty, you shall not commit fornication, you shall not steal, you shall not practice magic, you shall not practice witchcraft, you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. You shall not covet the things of your neighbor, you shall not swear, you shall not bear false witness, you shall not speak evil, you shall bear no grudge. You shall not be double-minded nor double-tongued, for to be double-tongued is a snare of death. 

Now, with that in mind, please read this magisterial passage from the Times piece (yes, while looking for attribution clauses):

While tanks and artillery have been Russia’s weapons of choice to project its power into neighboring Ukraine and Georgia, Mr. Putin has also mobilized faith to expand the country’s reach and influence. A fervent foe of homosexuality and any attempt to put individual rights above those of family, community or nation, the Russian Orthodox Church helps project Russia as the natural ally of all those who pine for a more secure, illiberal world free from the tradition-crushing rush of globalization, multiculturalism and women’s and gay rights.Thanks to a close alliance between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Kremlin, religion has proved a particularly powerful tool in former Soviet lands like Moldova, where senior priests loyal to the Moscow church hierarchy have campaigned tirelessly to block their country’s integration with the West. Priests in Montenegro, meanwhile have spearheaded efforts to derail their country’s plans to join NATO.

Then there is this, continuing the central theme:

Moscow’s quest to gain control of churches and graves dating from czarist times and squeeze out believers who look to the Constantinople patriarch is part of a broader push by the Kremlin to assert itself as both the legitimate heir to and master of “Holy Russia,” and as a champion of traditional values against the decadent heresies, notably liberal democracy, promoted by the United States and what they frequently call “Gayropa.”

GetReligion readers must read the Times analysis piece for themselves. It makes many valid points and, frankly, I thought there needed to be more material -- on the record, from qualified sources -- noting the tensions within the global Orthodox Communion over Putin, Russia’s actions and the state of modern Europe.

In other words, there is an Orthodox story here about issues that are important, issues that have little or nothing to do with Putin. These issues about the future of Russia, Europe and the former Soviet bloc will be important long after Putin is dead and gone.

Again let me state my main point: When covering these complex, even byzantine, cultural and religious issues it helps to separate Putin from Russia and Russian from Putin.

To help in that process, please see this think piece by Peter Hitchens, a former news correspondent in Russia, that was published in the journal First Things. The headline: “The Cold War is Over.”

Reading this piece is just as important as reading the Times piece, if you want to understand the journalism point that I am trying to make here.

There is much to read in this piece about the differences between modern Russian and the Soviet state. In particular, Hitchens wonders why Western diplomats (and journalists) rarely ponder how threatening the European Union looks to modern Russians, so soon after Russian surrendered -- with little or no gunfire -- a massive empire.

But I think the crucial passage is this one, focusing on issues of family, marriage, children and what Pope St. John Paul II famously called the “culture of death” in the modern world. This is long, but essential to the main point being made by Hitchens, which is moral and cultural, rather than political. Flash back a few decades to the Soviet horrors:

Even births (annually outnumbered toward the end of the U.S.S.R. by abortions) were fiercely regimented. In terrifying maternity hospitals, short of necessary basics and none too clean, newborn Russians were snatched away by nurses, wrapped tightly, and brought back at set times for feeding, then snatched away again. Fathers were not allowed to visit for many days, and mothers would hang strings from the windows, bearing notes pleading for bars of chocolate or other comforts and giving news of the baby’s progress.Family life, once begun, was precarious and fraught. Divorce had been made very easy by the family-hating Bolsheviks. One wedge-shaped Wedding Palace was known as “the Bermuda Triangle” because all the marriages contracted in it disappeared so quickly. I do not think I ever met a Soviet couple with two children who were full brothers and sisters. Invariably, it was a merger of two broken marriages into one new one. And no wonder. All the things that keep families together were absent or weak. Rents and prices were devised to ensure that even the educated middle class needed two full-time salaries to pay the bills. Unless there was a retired grandmother around, children were inevitably abandoned in early infancy to state nurseries and became the state’s charges. By the time I was there, the hideous state-sponsored cult of Pavlik Morozov, a young traitor to his family, was fading, but friends of mine remembered, sometimes with a shudder, being marched to pay respects to statues of this little monster, and to sing songs in his praise at Soviet youth gatherings.This was one of those points at which Soviet Russia, which looked on the surface like a cheap copy of Western Europe, turned out to be fundamentally different. The Morozov cult was not quite as horrifying as the worship of Moloch, the dreadful Carthaginian deity who required fiery child sacrifice. But it was so far from the beliefs and morals of the Christian world that I am amazed it is not better known and more studied in the West. “Comrade Pavlik,” a thirteen-year-old peasant boy from a Ural village, was revered as a martyred Soviet youth because he had denounced his own father to the secret police. His family had then murdered him in revenge. Poems, films, books, and even an opera celebrated this unlovely person. Though post-Soviet scholarship has established that the story is almost wholly untrue (Pavlik existed but was probably killed in a meaningless village squabble), the official worship of him continued at least until 1991 when -- to my amazement -- I found a statue of him in a small park in central Moscow.Pictures of the statue (now at last destroyed) can still be found, including a 1948 U.S.S.R. postage stamp depicting a boy atop a granite cylinder, holding a red flag and gazing into the future. This truly happened. The cult of Pavlik was present in every mind, the whispered urge to set state and party above parent, a splinter of ice placed deliberately in every little heart.

With that in mind, look at modern Europe. Then, with these images in mind, read the analysis piece in The New York Times a second time.

Categories: Main

Those acidic Gallup numbers about the news: CNN blames it on Trump and Trump alone

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Donald Trump's campaign for the White House has not been friendly to the American model of the press, that old-school approach in which journalists strive to offer balanced, accurate coverage of both sides in public debates and contents.

For starter's, Citizen Trump's approach to debates and to the concept of verifiable facts is a unique one, to say the least. Saying that Trump struggles with logic, truth and facts is something like saying that, for several decades, Hillary Clinton has struggled with basic questions of law, ethics and accountability. #DUH

But let's focus on Trump, as we take a second look at those stunningly depressing Gallup Poll numbers about the public's increasingly acidic view of journalism. Is there a religion -- or moral and social-issues -- angle in there somewhere? That's the question I asked yesterday.

Also, we're going to look at Trump, because that's precisely what CNN did when considering the Gallup numbers. Check out this headline: "Fueled by Republicans, Americans' trust in media hits all-time low."

The report starts out like this, logically enough (in light of that headline):

In a climate of bitter political partisanship, anti-media rhetoric and diversified media options, just 32% of Americans now say they trust the media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" -- the lowest level since 1972, when Gallup began polling. ...While Americans' faith in media has been in decline for over a decade, this year's findings represent a sharp drop from the previous eight years, when between 40 and 45 percent of Americans expressed trust.The change is largely fueled by the aggressive anti-media rhetoric of Donald Trump and other Republicans, Gallup said.

Ah, saying that Democrats trust the press more than Republicans is something like saying that plants like good soil, sunlight and oxygen. How nice of the network that, in the past, as been known as the Clinton News Network to make that point.

However, the Gallup release did say that and I have no doubt that, if only 14 percent of Republicans say they trust the mainstream media, that Trump's 24/7 attacks on the media played a role in that. He may have knocked those numbers all the way, this year, from 25 percent of GOPers trusting press all the way down to 14 percent.

But what put those numbers in the basement to start with? Some of the Republicans I know who are the most furious with the press, right now, are people who are hardcore #NeverTrump (as well as #NeverHillary). From their perspective, the press gave America the Trump nomination, through waves of free publicity of his each and every loud puff of air.

Trump is the easy angle, in these Gallup results. But the release also had this to say:

The overall decline in trust may be also fueled by "the explosion of the mass media," Gallup said, attributing that to what it called "lower standards for journalism.""When opinion-driven writing becomes something like the norm, Americans may be wary of placing trust on the work of media institutions that have less rigorous reporting criteria than in the past," Gallup said.

You mean (a) the line is blurring between news and editorial writing, (b) Americans are increasingly choosing editorial products that strengthen their own biases or (c) both?

If that is the case, what are the kinds of stories that tempt reporters to swing over to an advocacy, opinion-driven model of the press? And on those issues, do elite journalists -- say in the top offices of CNN and The New York Times -- tend to lean to the cultural and moral left or the right?

Might this slant have something to do with the low numbers, in general? What say you, Bill Keller, retired editor of the Times? Yes, I'm going to quote this again:

... When it comes to matters of moral and social issues, Bill Keller argues that it's only natural for scribes in the world's most powerful newsroom to view events through what he considers a liberal, intellectual and tolerant lens."We're liberal in the sense that ... liberal arts schools are liberal," Keller noted, during a recent dialogue recorded at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum. "We're an urban newspaper."

And then:

Keller continued: "We are liberal in the sense that we are open-minded, sort of tolerant, urban. Our wedding page includes -- and did even before New York had a gay marriage law -- included gay unions. So we're liberal in that sense of the word, I guess. Socially liberal."Asked directly if the Times slants its coverage to favor "Democrats and liberals," he added: "Aside from the liberal values, sort of social values thing that I talked about, no, I don't think that it does."

Again let me note the two key words -- "aside" and "from." And what are America's hot-button social issues? Consider this familiar list, as in sex, salvation, abortion, euthanasia, gay rights, cloning and a few other sensitive matters that are inevitably linked to religion.

So so thinks there is a religion angle in these dire Gallup numbers? Just maybe?

Categories: Main

Religion ghost? Concerning the shocking Gallup numbers about public trust in news media

Saturday, September 17, 2016

A long, long time ago, I wrote my journalism graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign about -- I am sure this will be a shock -- why so many mainstream newsrooms tend to ignore (or mangle) the role that religion plays in local, national and global news. Click here for the condensed version of that project that ran as a cover story with The Quill.

When talking to newspaper editors back in academic year 1981-82, I heard two things over and over: (1) religion news is too boring and (2) religion news is too controversial.

As I have said many times, the world is just packed with boring, controversial religion stories. The only way to make sense out of those answers, I thought at the time, was that editors considered these stories "boring" and they could not understand why so many readers cared so deeply about religious events, issues and trends.

At one point in that project, I discussed research done for the Connecticut Mutual Life Insurance Company late in the 1970s. Yes, that was long ago. However, I believe some of those survey results remain relevant today, as we consider the stunning numbers in a new Gallup Poll that indicate that consumer trust in the American news media has crashed to a new low.

We will come back to those numbers in a moment. The key question: Is the public attitude toward the press linked, in some way, to issues of media bias in coverage of moral, cultural and religious news, as well as the predictable levels of anger linked to coverage of the remarkably unpopular major-party candidates in this year's White House race.

So back to 1980 or so. The Connecticut Mutual Life study found, as I wrote for The Quill, that:

... (The) sector of the public that is the most religiously involved is also highly involved in the local news events that dominate daily newspapers. ... About 20 percent of all Americans, a group the survey calls the "most religious," are the people most likely to be involved in, and interested in local news. The survey shows:* The most religious are far more likely to believe the vote is the main thing that determines how the country is run.* The most religious are highly inclined to believe that solutions to major national problems can be found through politics.* The most religious are far more likely to do volunteer work for a local organization or political figure.* The most religious are much more likely to attend neighborhood or community meetings.* Finally, those who are most committed to religion are more likely to feel they "belong to a community."

Thus, to no one's shock, the "most religious" members in typical American cities and towns were sure to be among the most dedicated consumers of news -- especially local news. They were among the most loyal subscribers to local newspapers and viewers of local news channels.

The faculty who reviewed my graduate project, including the dean, the late, great media and journalism scholar James W. Carey, immediately saw the connection between these results and my topic.

The bottom line: If news producers want to drive away loyal, dedicated, long-time consumers of their products -- especially in average American cities and towns -- then one of the quickest ways to do that is to ignore religion news, to make mistakes while covering religion and/or to show obvious bias on topics linked to religious faith.

Let me stress that I am not saying that messed-up religion coverage is the only cause, or even the major cause, of the bleak numbers released by Gallup. I am saying that something has happened that is costing the press loyal consumers. Here is the top of the release from Gallup:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.Gallup began asking this question in 1972, and on a yearly basis since 1997. Over the history of the entire trend, Americans' trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72%, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. After staying in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Americans' trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily. It has consistently been below a majority level since 2007.While it is clear Americans' trust in the media has been eroding over time, the election campaign may be the reason that it has fallen so sharply this year.

Age is a factor. Yes, this was the hook that made me think of that Connecticut Mutual Life study long ago.

Older Americans are more likely than younger Americans to say they trust the media, but trust has declined among both age groups this year. Currently, 26% of those aged 18 to 49 (down from 36% last year) and 38% of those aged 50 and older (down from 45%) say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.

No, the poll did not -- at least in the public results -- probe any role that religious beliefs and practice may have played in these numbers.

Thus, why discuss this Gallup headline here at GetReligion? Obi Wan (Richard) Ostling put it this way: "It just portrays the broad US media context within which religion coverage exists."

So let's open this topic up for discussion. Does anyone have any reactions to the Gallup numbers?

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Is the Babylon Bee insider 'Christian' funny, or truly funny enough for prime time?

Friday, September 16, 2016

So what is this week's "Crossroads" podcast actually about?

Well, on one level it's about the "Christian" humor website called The Babylon Bee. But on a deeper level, it's about what happens when the word "Christian" is turned into an adjective defining a form of popular culture. At that point, all kinds of interesting and even distressing things take place. There are news stories in there, folks.

For example, when you hear someone talking about "Christian" rock 'n' roll, doesn't that (if you are of a certain age) make you think of that famous "Seinfeld" episode that included the riff about the car-radio buttons? Here's a flashback, from an "On Religion" column that I wrote long, long ago:

As she pulled into traffic, Elaine Benes turned on her boyfriend's car radio and began bouncing along to the music.Then the lyrics sank in: "Jesus is one, Jesus is all. Jesus pick me up when I fall." In horror, she punched another button, then another. "Jesus," she muttered, discovering they all were set to Christian stations. Then the scene jumped to typical "Seinfeld" restaurant chat."I like Christian rock," said the ultra-cynical George Costanza. "It's very positive. It's not like those real musicians who think they're so cool and hip."

It's all about the world "real." We are not talking about "real" musicians, here. We are talking about "Christian" rock. Thus, when most people hear the phrase "Christian" rock, they probably think of this rather than this (please click these URLs).

What do you think of when you hear people talk about "Christian" movies? Do you think of this or of this?

How about the fine arts? When you think of Christian paintings, do you think of this or, well, of this?

I could go on. "Christian" humor, including satire, is not new -- in fact, it's ancient. That's a subject that the media scholar Terry Lindvall and I discussed in my "On Religion" column this week, which focused on the kind if gentle, but biting, inside-baseball humor found in the Bee. Here is a piece of that:

The key is that Ford is a modern man who is filling an ancient role. ..."The biblical satirist shares in the blame and shame of his defendants. He may be God's prosecutor, but he is also entwined with the people he ridicules," wrote Lindvall in his book "God Mocks: A History of Religious Satire from the Hebrew Prophets to Stephen Colbert." A skilled satirist, he added, holds up a prophetic mirror that "offers a comic frame in which to look at and to look through the heart; the satirist finds that none are righteous, including himself."The Bee stings everything from common family life ("Woman Finally Accepts Doctrine Of Total Depravity Now That Daughter Is Two") to lofty academia ("Jesus Was A Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist, Claims Socialist Deconstructionist Feminist Scholar").However, a headline about President Barack Obama nominating the Canaanite god Moloch to serve on the Supreme Court perfectly illustrates Ford's method, noted Lindvall in an interview. The piece mocks evangelicals who are "totally paranoid" about anything Obama touches, yet also lances the left's ultimate Supreme Court litmus test -- abortion.Ford, Lindvall added, "is piercing, yet gentle. ... It's more of a poke in the ribs, instead of a poke in the eyes."

Contemporary Christian satire is not new, either. Once upon a time there was a magazine called The Wittenburg Door and, especially in the early days, it had its moments of true insight. However, over time there was a tendency there for writers to center their acidic humor on the foibles of fundamentalists, alone, with all of the jabs coming from moderate to liberal evangelicals who had left all of that stupid stuff behind, if you know what I mean.

The Bee, meanwhile, covers a wide range of subjects, but most of its social-media traction comes from its humor about evangelicals, written by other evangelicals.

In other words, the Bee is "Christian" in the sense that it is a site written by Christians, primarily for Christians, with much of the humor based on a gentle, probing, analysis of the, as I put it in the column, "yins and yangs" of the evangelical niche culture.

But some of this satire, as demonstrated by the Moloch image, has multiple levels. This is where things get complex.

At this point, Bee creator Adam Ford (click here for his own website) is truly exploring territory that mixes Christian doctrine with The Onion. However, check out this recent page at The Onion. Could you run this "story" at The Babylon Bee and get away with it?

This is where I will end, with two crucial questions. First, it is one thing to be funny every now and then. That's easy -- especially when you are doing niche humor for a niche audience.

Consider this classic video for example:

Ah, but could you produce one or more videos a day like this, day after day?

Or how about this online probe-the-megachurches classic? Could the video and script people behind this work for, oh, The Tonight Show or Comedy Central and produce material this good on a regular basis? Yes, bias would be an issue. But at what point does skill and talent win out?

This brings me to the second issue raised, gently, in this podcast: Could Ford take his humor to the next level and truly "go secular," while still viewing the "real" world through his own unique, faith-centered lens?

In other words, will there come a day when "Christian" artists have the courage to make art for everyone, with their worldview soaked into the content? Gosh, I think someone has raised that very issue before.

Enjoy the podcast.

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