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Updated: 32 min 28 sec ago

Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant."The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

The respected Crux, the Boston-based Catholic newsmagazine, seemed to change its tone depending on the story. The headline item on Monday was pretty benign:

According to a press statement from the Vatican, the both noted the "great significance" of this meeting in the framework of dialogue between the Catholic Church and Islam."[They] spoke mostly about the issue of the common commitment of the authorities and faithful of great religions for peace in the world, the rejection of violence and terrorism, the situation of Christians in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Middle East and their protection," the Vatican said of the meeting, which lasted 25 minutes and took place in the pope’s private library.

The article does add some background on its own. It mentions the "series of attacks against Christian churches Alexandria, and that Benedict "demanded more protection for Christians in Egypt, which Al-Azhar took as "meddling in the internal affairs of another country."

Crux followed up yesterday with quotes from el-Tayeb's interview in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican's newspaper. He said Muslim and Christian leaders attended a conference last year at Al-Azhar and issued a plea not to confuse terrorism with Islam.

But the paper adds: "The imam also said that the current violence in the Middle East shouldn’t be portrayed as 'persecution of Christians' because the largest number of victims are Muslim, and that if anything, the two are 'suffering this catastrophe together.' "

That arched the eyebrow of John Allen Jr., the veteran Vatican-watching editor of Crux. In a commentary piece, he voices sympathy over Francis' dilemma in reaching out to moderate Muslims in the Middle East, while also raising consciousness about the region’s persecuted Christians.

But Allen also asks why reporters didn’t push back against el-Tayeb's blurring tactic:

Somewhat remarkably, none of the journalists present seemed to ask the obvious follow-up question: Does el-Tayeb truly believe there isn’t a specifically anti-Christian streak to many versions of Islamic radicalism – for instance, the more militant quarters of the Muslim Brotherhood in his own Egypt, where Copts routinely complain of harassment, violence and discrimination?Is it plausible to maintain that "persecution of Christians" is the wrong narrative on the Middle East when multiple global bodies, including the U.S. State Department, have acknowledged that a genocide of Christians and other minorities is under way in areas controlled by ISIS?

Later, Allen says that even when a Muslim majority isn’t actually attacking Christians, "they’re often relegated to a sort of second-class citizenship that reflects a deep current of social prejudice."

Indeed: You can read story after story on that fact. One from March tells of ISIS burning 8,000 books of "infidels" -- i.e., Christians -- in Mosul. The article accuses Muslim governments of trying to erase even the memory of Christianity from the region.

As I often say, mainstream reporters could likely have found such articles as fast as I did.

But that's a scary thought, isn’t it? You don’t need ISIS or Al-Qaida to blur or erase the memory of Christianity from the Middle East. All you need are docile reporters who don’t read archives or ask enough questions.

IMAGES: Pope Francis addresses senior government officials and diplomats in the Philippines, January 2015. Photo by Benhur Arcayan of the Malacañang Photo Bureau. Public Domain photo via Wikimedia Creative Commons.

Categories: Main

Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Another major Texas newspaper has produced an excellent feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups.

Back in March, I (mostly) praised the Houston Chronicle for such a story and shared some reflections of my own experience writing about religion and prisons.

I did, however, wonder why the Chronicle didn't make clear the role of the state and the use of any taxpayer money:

Jailhouse baptisms in Texas' toughest lockup raises church-state question:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) March 2, 2016

That background leads to the Dallas Morning News front-page Sunday feature that ran under the banner headline "Prophets of hope":

From inmate to minister: Seminary program aims to transform Texas prisoners from inside out

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) May 22, 2016

The Morning News story is colorful, nicely written and — if you are a person of Christian faith, as I am — inspiring:

ROSHARON — For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith.“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

I urge you to read the piece and enjoy it.

My only criticism — and it's more a question than harsh criticism — is the same as I had concerning the earlier Chronicle story: What exactly is the relationship of the state and the seminary concerning this program? How does the state sanctioning pastor training inside a prison not violate the separation of church and state? What are the rules, and how is Texas making sure to follow them?

Categories: Main

The Washington Post puts generic faith at the heart of a family's fight to save a child

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

First things first: I have nothing but praise for the dramatic and very human story that unfolds in the recent Washington Post feature that ran under the headline, " ‘God is telling me not to let go’: A mother fights to keep her 2-year-old on life support."

This story focuses on agonizing choices and, in this age of soaring health-care costs, that means dealing with the viewpoints of medical-industry professionals as well as traumatized family members. Readers need to understand both points of view to grasp some of the core issues in this piece.

Also, the story doesn't hide the fact that religious faith is, for the parents of little Israel Stinson, at the heart of their fight to keep him alive. There is quite a bit of religious language in this piece, as there must be.

So what is missing? Well, if this family's faith is at the heart of their story, might readers want to know something about the details of that faith? Maybe even the name of this faith? Are they Baptists, Catholics, Pentecostals, Jehovah's Witnesses or what? Hold that thought.

Here is the overture for the story:

Two-year-old Israel Stinson was being treated for an asthma attack in an emergency room in Northern California last month when he started to shiver, his lips turning purple and his eyes rolling back in his head.Over the next day, court records claim, Israel had a hard time breathing, went into cardiac arrest and seemingly slipped into a coma. Soon, his doctors declared him brain-dead and decided that he should be disconnected from the machine that kept his heart beating.But his parents protested: Discontinuing medical treatment, they argued, would violate their son's right to a life -- and their hope that he might eventually have one.

From the point of view of the parents, they see signs of life and they see reason to hope -- in part because they are looking through the eyes of religious faith. For the family, that looks like this:

Someone tickles him under the arm and tells him it's time to wake up. Then, seconds later, his muscles tense up."You make Mommy so excited," his mother says. "I know you're going to come out of this, baby, whenever you're ready -- when God sees ready."Israel's parents, Nathaniel Stinson and Jonee Fonseca, are fighting Kaiser Permanente Roseville Medical Center in court, requesting a temporary restraining order to keep doctors from discontinuing life support for their son. Their intention is to move him to a medical facility where he can get life-sustaining care.

The problem, of course, is that health care of this kind of expensive. There are limited resources, you see, and the doctors have already checked off all of the scientific criteria that indicate that Israel is brain dead.

The body is alive, the heart is beating and there are muscle reflexes. But from the health-care industry's point of view, brain dead is brain dead and it is science that signs the insurance checks.

This is where the Post includes some details about one advocate on the faith side of this debate:

Paul A. Byrne, a pediatric neonatologist who has written extensively about brain death issues, disagrees. Byrne, a former president of the Catholic Medical Association and president of a faith-based group called Life Guardian Foundation, wrote a court declaration for Fonseca, arguing that there may be hope for her toddler."The brain swelling in Israel Stinson began with the cardiorespiratory arrest that occurred more than three weeks ago," he wrote, adding that the boy "may achieve even complete or nearly complete neurological recovery if he is given proper treatment soon." ...That's why, Israel's parents say, they have filed for a temporary restraining order to keep doctors from removing their son from his ventilator and gastric tube until they can find another hospital to take him.

This brings us to the pivotal moment in the story, in terms of its religious content and the motives of the family. You see, the Israel's parents:

... argue that withdrawing medical treatment violates their constitutional rights -- including freedom of religion.Attorney Alexandra Snyder, executive director of the Life Legal Defense Foundation, said removing Israel from life support goes against the family's religious beliefs."They believe that death does not occur until the heart stops beating," Snyder, who initially helped represent Fonseca in court, told The Post.

So what, precisely, are the origins of this very specific doctrinal belief that is at the heart of the family's case?

That could be important, let's say, if they are Pentecostal Christians -- because Pentecostal beliefs in faith healing have been at the heart of previous court decisions linked to parental rights and medical care. I think that it's safe to say that, if the parents were Jehovah's Witnesses, the Post team would have mentioned that. But other faith traditions have specific teachings that might be relevant in this case.

The story makes it sound like this family is, on faith issues, a denomination unto themselves. There is no pastor involved? No local church helping support them? There is no denomination that has a specific set of religious beliefs that back them up?

The story makes it clear that the child was even given a name with deep religious roots. Was that linked to a particular faith tradition?

The bottom line: If religion is at the heart of this fine story -- from the headline to the crucial summary statements of its thesis -- why not give readers one or two sentences that describe this faith and give it a name? In this kind of story, God is, indeed, in the details.

Categories: Main

Religion on the range: One reporter goes the extra miles to cover faith in Billings, Montana

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I have a lot of sympathy for folks who work on small newspapers in out-of-the-way states.

Back, when I spent a year in northwestern New Mexico back in 1994-1995, I was the only full-time journalist in the state trying to cover the beat. I was also the city editor of my newspaper, so there wasn’t a lot of free time. Yet, I pulled in a Cassells award the following year for the little I was able to do in a market of that size.

Montana, at half the population of New Mexico, has some similarities: Large, open spaces, beautiful vistas, large populations of Native Americans and small newspapers. The Billings Gazette, at 45,000 circ., is the state’s second largest newspaper after the Missoulian to the west.

One thing the Gazette has that no other newspaper in the state does is a religion reporter.

I’ve never met Susan Olp, but she’s covered religion for more than 20 years for the Gazette in the state’s largest city. She’s committed enough to the beat that she visited Israel in 2011 courtesy of a Lilly scholarship. And she must know -- as I learned in my isolated post in New Mexico -- that religion stories don’t always come knocking at your door. You have to go looking for them.

One thing that you can do is nab any guest speaker who’s showing up in town. She wrote this in March:

Back in October 2010, famed atheist Christopher Hitchens and Christian author and speaker Larry Alex Taunton met at the packed Babcock Theatre in downtown Billings for a lively debate.The two men, friends away from the debating stage, ate dinner together that night. The next day they enjoyed a seven-hour drive through Yellowstone National Park.Fourteen months later, Hitchens died from complications related to esophageal cancer. Now Taunton has written a book about his relationship with Hitchens, their road trips together and the Billings debate, which he calls “pivotal.”Taunton, executive director of the Fixed Point Foundation in Birmingham, Ala., will return to the Babcock stage on Thursday to speak about the his book “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.”

Searching about the Gazette website, I learned that this newspaper (contrary to trends across the country) had expanded their religion coverage last year by making "Faith & Values" a section front -- which means it was the first page you read in the B or C section. The newspaper then contacted about two dozen religious leaders and asked them to submit 850-word essays telling the world about their church or temple. About 13 did so.

The newspaper also posted a notice to leaders of any faith groups it might have missed, asking them to send in information. No one responded.

Now that was a year ago and maybe the newspaper has had a bit better luck getting response, as I saw profiles later that year on Mormon and Baha’i groups. But the initial reaction was a lot what I ran into in New Mexico. Most faith groups don’t see publicity as positive and they don’t have anyone on staff or a volunteer who can put together a story. In small towns especially, the religion reporter has to coax stories out of people.

And Olp appears to have been the person who did all the legwork. Occasionally, the Gazette runs a religion piece by someone else but most of the job is on her shoulders, plus she has to cover other beats as well.

So here’s a salute to the religion reporters working in small markets, who face pressures that reporters in large cities don’t face. When I worked in New Mexico, one of the biggest spiritual events of the decade was an upcoming Franklin Graham crusade. When I wrote about how disorganized the planning committee was, the publisher was angry that I’d made him look bad in that small town. That wouldn’t happen in a larger venue.

After my year in New Mexico, I got another job in Washington, D.C., which many would consider the world capital for journalism and light years away from the high plains of the Four Corners region. But many reporters don’t have the luxury of moving to another locale, so they do what they can where they are.

The bottom line: There is a surprising amount of religion news in the offbeat places but it takes a lot more work to find it.

IMAGE: Susan Olp of The Billings Gazette.

Categories: Main

Journalists: What do emotions have to do with spirituality? Dalai Lama says a great deal

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Still not sure about the whole spiritual-but-not-religious-thing?

Fuzzy on how someone can claim to have a transcendent worldview while insisting that organized religion is just not their bag?

Then this recent piece from The New York Times may be of help.

The story details a project backed by global Buddhism's unofficial exemplar, the Dalai Lama. The "simple monk" -- as the Tibetan Buddhist religious leader, Nobel Peace Prize-winner and all-around pop culture icon of inner-peace and outer-calm often refers to himself -- is the force behind the ambitious Atlas of Emotions.

The project is an attempt to explain the panoply of human emotions and their influence on human actions using the language of Western transpersonal psychology (Full disclosure: In the late 1970s I was a media liaison in India for the International Transpersonal Association.)

The Dali Lama's hope is "to help turn secular audiences into more self-aware, compassionate humans," as the Times article put it.

Here's how the Atlas explains itself:

This Atlas was created to increase understanding of how emotions influence our lives, giving us choice, (at least some of the time) about which emotion we are experiencing, and how our emotions influence what we say and do. While emotions are central to our lives – providing the joy, alerting us to threats, a force for change, a warning against what is toxic, and calling to others for help – we don’t choose what to feel or when to feel it. The Atlas of Emotions was created to give us more awareness of our emotions, and sometimes even some choice about what we are feeling, through better understanding of how emotions work.

The combination of deep self-awareness, emotional self-management as an essential life skill, and compassionate action to a grok degree is as an encompassing definition of the spiritual-but-not-religious (hereafter SBNR) personal ideal as I've heard.

It's a big umbrella approach that may or may not have a theistic component; that's an individual choice. It may also be approached as a uniquely singular path or in a group setting, though it's always better, I think, to have some peer review -- no matter the human activity -- to keep self-delusion and narcissism in check. Think of it as spiritual home schooling.

And while the Atlas has a strong Buddhist tie in, SBNRs may draw their inspiration and personal approach from virtually any religious background, Eastern or Western, mainstream or otherwise.

The Atlas is a website, of course. And yes, it has a Hollywood connection (I'll explain below, but here's a hint: it's not Buddhist cinema heartthrob Richard Gere).

Additionally, it's Tibetan Buddhism at its most basic level -- that is, stripped entirely of its Central Asian cultural trappings that give traditional Tibetan -- or more accurately, Vajrayana -- Buddhism, it's exotic, high church, bells-and-whistles quality. (I'm referring to mandalas, oracles, ritualized pageantry and the like.)

It's easy to dismiss the Atlas's emphasis on the emotional realm as somehow being less authtentically sacred than the mainstream Abrahamic religions' insistence that their individual theologies align completely with God's perceived plan. But that would be misunderstanding the SBNR, who already have strong doubts about the claims of religious elders.

Ditto for dismissing the SBNR worldview as just so much "Sheilaism," as Robert Bellah and others labeled self-asserted spirituality in their classic 1985 book, "Habits of the Heart."

As a specie, humans have always been an insecure lot that's searched for inner security any way that came to mind -- from human and animal sacrifice to the gods, to the Jerusalem' crowd's shouting hosanna as Jesus passed by. For the SBNR, the quest for emotional stability and calm is no different.

Nor does being SBNR mean disengaging from societal concerns. On the contrary, it may mean more involvement as the SBNR feels a greater sense of connection and responsibility for their fellow beings.

This essay from The Atlantic notes how the SBNR may be viewed said to be a new sort of values voter.

OK, what about that Hollywood connection I mentioned above? For that, let's return to The Times story that prompted this post.

To create this “map of the mind,” as he called it, the Dalai Lama reached out to a source Hollywood had used to plumb the workings of the human psyche.Specifically, he commissioned his good friend Paul Ekman — a psychologist who helped advise the creators of Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an animated film set inside a girl’s head — to map out the range of human sentiments. Dr. Ekman later distilled them into the five basic emotions depicted in the movie, from anger to enjoyment.Dr. Ekman’s daughter, Eve, a post-doctoral fellow in integrative medicine research, worked on the project as well, with the goal of producing a guide to human emotions that anyone with an Internet connection could study in a quest for self-understanding, calm and constructive action.“We have, by nature or biologically, this destructive emotion, also constructive emotion,” the Dalai Lama said. “This innerness, people should pay more attention to, from kindergarten level up to university level. This is not just for knowledge, but in order to create a happy human being. Happy family, happy community and, finally, happy humanity.”

Quite a claim that -- a happy humanity. That means less interpersonal strife, less inter-communal conflict, more harmonious living. Can it be attained without joining a church, synagogue, temple or mosque? The SBNR crowd thinks so, at least for themselves.

Besides, it's pretty clear that the many centuries of joining established, mainstream religious bodies hasn't given us a peaceable kingdom.

Categories: Main

Jimmy Carter talks Baptists and racism, but SOUTHERN Baptists missing from the conversation (Updated)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

When a former president talks, we journalists listen.

That's part of why Jimmy Carter still makes headlines 35 years after he left the Oval Office. The other part is, of course, how active he remains. The Atlantic wrote in 2012 about "The Record-Setting Ex-Presidency of Jimmy Carter."

Today's Carter-related news involves the longtime Sunday school teacher's plans for a conference promoting racial unity among Baptists, as reported by the New York Times:

Former President Jimmy Carter, who has long put religion and racial reconciliation at the center of his life, is on a mission to heal a racial divide among Baptists and help the country soothe rifts that he believes are getting worse.In an interview on Monday, Mr. Carter spoke of a resurgence of open racism, saying, “I don’t feel good, except for one thing: I think the country has been reawakened the last two or three years to the fact that we haven’t resolved the race issue adequately.”He said that Republican animosity toward President Obama had “a heavy racial overtone” and that Donald J. Trump’s surprisingly successful campaign for president had “tapped a waiting reservoir there of inherent racism.”Mr. Carter conducted telephone interviews to call attention to a summit meeting he plans to hold in Atlanta this fall to bring together white, black, Hispanic and Asian Baptists to work on issues of race and social inequality. Mr. Carter began the effort, called the New Baptist Covenant, in 2007, but it has taken root in only a few cities. The initiative is expanding to enlist Baptist congregations across the country to unite across racial lines.

Later in the Times story, the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation's largest Protestant denomination, enters the discussion:

He pointed out that the evangelicals in the Southern Baptist Convention had aligned themselves with the Republican Party and organized the Moral Majority, a conservative Christian political group, only in the late 1970s, while he was president. Mr. Carter announced that he was leaving the Southern Baptist Convention in 2000, after the denomination solidified its turn to the right and declared that it would not accept women as pastors.

But what's missing from the story? That would be Southern Baptists. 

A Southern Baptist who shared the Times link with GetReligion complained:

Absolutely no effort to report racial reconciliation efforts by Southern Baptists, including the current SBC president, who has made this a central concern of his tenure the last two years.

Yes, this is a daily news story (slightly more than 800 words), not an in-depth takeout with room for a whole lot of context on Southern Baptist history and racial strides. But I understand the reader's concern about no quotes at all from any Southern Baptist leaders. 

The Southern Baptist Convention, after all, elected its first black president just a few years ago.

And top Southern Baptists such as Albert Mohler, Russell Moore and Ronnie Floyd have spoken out against racism. At the same time, some have joined the #NeverTrump movement.

Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., called attention to the issue last year after a white gunman killed nine people at a Wednesday night Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.:

The deadly evil of racism in a premeditated murder in a Charleston church. I discuss today on #TheBriefing

— Albert Mohler (@albertmohler) June 19, 2015

Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has clashed publicly with Trump. Moore recently wrote an op-ed about the need for churches to reject racism. The piece was published in the Times, so maybe editors thought readers would remember?:

A church that doesn't reject racism, nativism will cut itself off from revival. My piece in the New York Times:

— Russell Moore (@drmoore) May 6, 2016

Floyd, the Southern Baptist Convention president, plans a "National Conversation on Racial Unity in America" at the denomination's annual meeting in St. Louis next month:

The sin of racism is a spiritual stronghold in this nation and now is the time this wall must come down.

— Ronnie Floyd (@ronniefloyd) May 3, 2016

To be sure, the Times' interview with Carter tells part of the story on Baptists and racial unity efforts.

But, it seems, there's a bigger story that could be told.

• • •

Laurie Goodstein, the Times' veteran religion writer, responded to the above post on Twitter. I wanted to share her tweets with GetReligion readers:

Dear @GetReligion, it's hardly missing. I did a whole story on SOUTHERN Baptists and race recently. @albertmohler @drmoore 1/3

— Laurie Goodstein (@lauriegnyt) May 24, 2016

Here's the link:

— Laurie Goodstein (@lauriegnyt) May 24, 2016

One story on race relations and religion can't cover everything, and the story on Jimmy Carter was on Jimmy Carter.

— Laurie Goodstein (@lauriegnyt) May 24, 2016

I don't necessarily agree that an interview published in the Sunday Review section four months ago negates the need for a Southern Baptist voice in this week's news story. But I certainly appreciate and respect Goodstein's perspective and her excellent work on the Godbeat for many years.

Daily journalism on such a complicated subject as religion is far from easy, and Goodstein remains one of the best at her craft.


Categories: Main

RNS focuses on concerns of African Methodists (minus the voices of their critics on left)

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

While doctrinal fights over sexuality keep grabbing the headlines, anyone who follows United Methodist affairs knows that the real news in this denomination, like so many others, centers on issues of demographics and geography.

While the number of baptisms and conversions sink in America, accompanied by a rapid graying of the surviving people in the pews, the ranks of new Methodists are growing in the lands of the Global South. Since the denomination's General Conferences are global in nature, this means that United Methodists around the world are gaining power, while the Americans slowly fade.

As a rule, journalists covering conflicts inside the United Methodist Church have explained the basic facts of this mechanism. At the 2016 gatherings, most of the weight was carried by Religion News Service, the rare mainstream newsroom that -- in these hard times for journalists -- had a reporter on site.

As things came to a close in Portland, RNS offered a long, interesting news feature that looked at recent events through a global lens, with this headline: "African Methodists worry about the church that brought them Christianity."

I am sure that conservative United Methodists, here in America and abroad, found much to applaud in this piece. However, this was the rare case in which a mainstream newsroom produced a story that had large hole in its content -- on the doctrinal left. While the Africans were allowed to speak, RNS did little to let readers hear the voices of their First World critics.

Does this matter? Yes, it does, because that is where the action is right now. It's highly likely that the next act in this drama will be driven by Americans striving to find a way to put all those global votes into a separate structure, allowing First World progressives to make the changes they want to make in issues of discipline and doctrine.

So what we have here is an admirable chance to hear the African voices -- without hearing the United Methodist voices, perhaps in meetings behind closed doors, who oppose them. Here is a crucial summary, featuring the voice of the Rev. Jerry Kulah, dean of the Gbarnga School of Theology in Liberia.

The big idea: "People from the country that brought the Gospel to us are now preaching a different Gospel.” The implication in this story, as in most of the mainstream news coverage, is that the key doctrinal differences focus on sexuality. But is that really the crucial dividing line here?

“It’s mind-boggling, and it baffles the Christian leader from Africa -- I speak for all of Africa -- it baffles the mind of the Christian leader from Africa, who ascribes to the whole Bible as his or her primary authority for faith and practice, to see and to hear that cultural Christianity can take the place of the Bible. United Methodists in America and other parts of the world are far going away from Scripture and giving in to cultural Christianity,” Kulah said.Despite this sense of outrage, the African delegations largely maintained a calm, restrained presence amid the vocal demonstrations and arguments over procedure at the conference. But many stood up and sang during the recess in the middle of the most contentious day, as delegates considered whether to defer decisions on LGBT inclusion to a specially created commission. Their singing, asking God for help, brought a joyous moment in the middle of strife.“I think the Americans have something to learn from us,” said Betty Katiyo, a delegate from the West Zimbabwe Conference. She reflected the belief among many delegates from growing African conferences that their churches retain something of the spirit of Methodism’s founder John Wesley that they can share with the rest of the denomination.

So there is the question: What is the heart of the "spirit" of Wesley? Anyone who knows church history knows that Wesley was both an evangelist and a social activist who tried to call the Church of England back to the basics of piety and the faith. He was, in a true since of this abused term, an "evangelical."

So while the headlines focus on sex, it would be good to ask another question about the tensions between United Methodists: "How many converts are the Americans winning to the faith?" Journalists may want to request some updated statistics on ADULT, as well as infant, baptisms in America and then in Africa. How many adult converts are being baptized, these days, in American UMC sanctuaries?

Consider this strong statistical round-up in the RNS feature:

The United Methodist Church in Africa has grown dramatically over the past 10 years -- jumping 329 percent in the Africa Central Conference, 201 percent in Congo and 154 percent in West Africa -- as membership has dipped in the United States and Europe.Even with an 11 percent decline in membership, the U.S. branch still is the largest, boasting more than 7 million members. But Africa is not far behind with nearly 4.9 million -- including the single largest delegation at the General Conference: 48 delegates from the North Katanga Conference in Congo. And this year, after a change in the way delegates are allocated, Africa has a noticeably larger share of delegates: 260 out of 864 delegates, compared with 252 out of 956 delegates four years ago.

What trends are shaping these statistics? Might there be doctrinal issues in play here other than fights over sex?

So what happens next? The ties that bind the Africans and the Americans are still there, but they are changing.

The key questions concern the shape of any future schism. If a split occurs, will it also (legally) divide United Methodists in the United States or simply separate the global churches from the main UMC power structures, thus giving progressives a better shot at victory on sexuality issues? I thought this passage was interesting, focusing on the balance of power among the church's bishops.

Earlier in the week, delegates had approved a comprehensive plan for Africa that would add five bishops after the 2020 General Conference in Minneapolis, narrowly voting down a push to immediately add two bishops in Nigeria and in Zimbabwe.

Ah, so the growing churches in Africa would receive additional bishop slots AFTER the proposed and potentially pivotal 2018 special meeting -- a strategic move sought by the bishops -- to discuss changes in church doctrines on sexuality?

What do the Americans want? Here is one of the only passages in this RNS feature that hints at that side of the discussing, featuring the voice of Thomas Kemper, the church's general secretary for Global Ministries.

“I think the word for me is ‘interdependent,’ ” Kemper said. “We continue to depend on each other, but we also have the ability to walk in our own shoes and our own way of being the church and not depending on financial support from one part of the church even to keep the structure.”

And there is the key language. What does it mean to say, "we also have the ability to walk in our own shoes and our own way of being the church." Does that mean that the Americans have one approach to doctrine and the Africans have another, with tweaked separate but sort-of-equal power structures that allow that to happen?

Stay tuned. And journalists: Keep your eyes on the bishops.

FIRST IMAGE: Prayer beads for the UMC General Conference.

Categories: Main

Think piece: Has anyone at an Orthodox parish near you heard of St. Moses the Black?

Monday, May 23, 2016

Every liturgical year, hours after the great feast of Pascha, Eastern Orthodox Christians gather for a unique service called the Agape Vespers -- during which passages from St. John's Gospel are read in as many languages as possible (based on the membership of the parish).

In this highly multi-ethnic Communion, it is common for churches to have readings in six or seven languages. At my family's parish in the Baltimore-D.C. area -- Holy Cross Orthodox Church in Linthicum, MD. -- we used to hit 16 or more on a rather regular basis.

What's the point? Theologically speaking, The Big Idea is that the church must always remember to proclaim the Gospel to as many people and cultures as possible. In the Orthodox context here in America, it's a regular reminder that the borders of Orthodoxy are not defined by the language and culture of the Old Country (think Greece or Russia), or by the language and culture of the new (think converts here in North America).

Truth is (attention reporters and editors) many, many seeker-friendly Orthodox parishes are becoming quite diverse, when it comes to ethnicity and even languages.

This brings me to an interesting, and quite straightforward, "Have Faith" feature at The Daily Beast that ran the other day. Here was the info-driven, sprawling headline:

The Brotherhood of Moses the BlackIt may come as a shock to some, but one surprising religion is making serious inroads into the African-American community.

And here is the feature's overture:

When Karl Berry walked into an Orthodox Church for the first time in 1983, he saw icons of black saints. He and his wife were living in Atlanta at the time, and visiting a friend when they stopped by. He would never forget the day he first encountered St. Moses the Black and St. Cyprian of Carthage. “My first thought was that these were just some very liberal white people who were doing some outreach and trying to appeal to black people,” Berry, now known as Father Moses, told The Daily Beast. The priest told him that they were actually replicas of third century icons, linking back to a Christianity that originated hundreds of years ago.“And that was my first introduction to the universal church, not just in theory or in words but in actual depictions of saints from different countries who were always part of the development of Christendom,” he said.

Truth is, it is hard to understand the life and growth of the early church without digging into its roots in Africa.

This is timely discussion, in light of the fact that several Christian flocks are booming, once again, in Africa and this trend is having a major impact on some churches in the Western world (think Anglicans and United Methodists, for example). Reporters might want to check out two books in particular, "How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity" by theologian Thomas Oden and then "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity," by historian Philip Jenkins.

In terms of journalism at the local level, this feature in The Daily Beast focuses on the slow, but steady, growth of a network called the Brotherhood of Moses the Black in a number of Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions. And if you want a introduction to the amazing life of this 4th century saint -- basically a highwayman and murderer who became a holy monk -- then click here.

The story in the Beast offers these two background summaries:

Berry is one of a small but growing number of African Americans moving from Protestant churches to Orthodox Christianity, inspired by the Church’s long history in Africa, claim to authenticity, and reverence of black saints. Together, they’re transforming a tradition largely tied to white ethnic groups in America, and reaching out to others in the African-American community with their message. The icons in the Virginia church also reminded Berry of his childhood, when his grandmother told him that there were so many races of people because they were all flowers in God’s garden. At that Virginia church, Berry said, he felt the icons telling him, “We are the flowers in God’s garden that you’re looking for.”

And later there is this:

Last year, the Pew Research Center found growing racial diversity across all Christian denominations, and Orthodox Christianity in particular. Although practitioners may often associate themselves with particular ethnic groups -- like Greek Orthodox, or Russian Orthodox, for example -- the number of people of color ascribing to the church went up by six percentage points between 2007 and 2014, from 13 to 19 percent.Mother Katherine Weston, an Orthodox nun, told The Daily Beast that outreach to African-American communities began in the early 1990s with a series conference on the ancient church and the African-American experience which continue to this day. Eventually, Berry and some other conference attendees founded the Brotherhood of Moses the Black in 1997 when he lived in St. Louis. The city was seeing an influx of Orthodox refugees from Africa who lacked support networks, and the Brotherhood sought to provide them with aid and community. 

So what is the takeaway in this think piece? Simply stated, reporters may want to survey the Orthodox communities in the region surrounding their newsrooms and find out if there are any local signs of this trend. I'll be honest: This is not a trend that is reaching all parishes in all regions.

However, it's safe to say that something is going on. In Baltimore, and also here in Bible Belt East Tennessee, there are African-Americans, folks from overseas and members of blended, multi-ethnic families (What would you call a family with a Thai-Indonesian-Vietnamese-African-American heritage?) who are curious about ancient rites and roots. Many of them are young males. Yes, that was an African-American teen chanting the morning prayers yesterday at my own parish here in Oak Ridge.

So place a few local calls. Has anyone near you heard of St. Moses the Black? If your local Orthodox have never heard of this saint, you may want to ask: "Why not?"

Categories: Main

Atheism studies: New York Times scores scoop on a planned program at University of Miami

Monday, May 23, 2016

If there is a God, he must be smiling on the New York Times.

The newspaper beat everyone else in announcing a planned chair for the study of atheism at the University of Miami -- said to be the first in the nation.

The 1,000-word article suffers, however, from a lack of secular-style skepticism. But let's look at the good stuff first:

With an increasing number of Americans leaving religion behind, the University of Miami received a donation in late April from a wealthy atheist to endow what it says is the nation’s first academic chair "for the study of atheism, humanism and secular ethics."The chair has been established after years of discussion with a $2.2 million donation from Louis J. Appignani, a retired businessman and former president and chairman of the modeling school Barbizon International, who has given grants to many humanist and secular causes -- though this is his largest so far. The university, which has not yet publicly announced the new chair, will appoint a committee of faculty members to conduct a search for a scholar to fill the position."I’m trying to eliminate discrimination against atheists," said Mr. Appignani, who is 83 and lives in Florida. "So this is a step in that direction, to make atheism legitimate."

The article notes a rise of interest in atheism, including conferences, courses and even a journal -- and names names, like the American Humanist Association and Pitzer College's "Secularism and Skepticism" class. Another coup is a phone talk with uber-atheist Richard Dawkins in Britain.

Dawkins voices hope that such steps can help "shake off the shackles of religion from the study of morality." That's not as odd as it may seem: As the Times says, he has spoken twice at UM, bankrolled by Appignani.

This academic chair has been in the making for more than 15 years, the article says. The university was reluctant to allow a chair with the word "atheism," as if the school were advocating it, explains Thomas J. LeBlanc, executive vice president and provost:

"We didn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that this was to be an advocacy position for someone who is an atheist," he said. "Our religion department isn’t taking an advocacy position when it teaches about Catholicism or Islam. Similarly, we’re not taking an advocacy position when we teach about atheism or secular ethics."Asked whether he anticipated any backlash, Mr. LeBlanc said: "This is an area where people can get overly excited if they don’t actually look carefully at what’s happening. The idea that there are nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy."

Even that shopworn "Rise of the Nones" Pew Forum research is freshened up here.

The Times notes that non-religious Americans rose from 16 percent in 2007 to 23 percent in 2014. One bobble is when the story says that 35 percent of millennials "identify as atheist, agnostic or with no religion in particular." A better comparison would be where Pew says that 33 percent of millennials said in 2014 that they don’t believe in God, up 11 points from 2007.

By quoting Appignani himself, the Times landed this story even ahead of the official announcement from UM.  The newspaper also beat local media.: The Miami Herald had nothing as of this writing, and the Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale ran a mere three paragraphs, based purely on the Times story.

Miami New Times, a scrappy alternative publication, largely copies from the New York Times piece except for local numbers. Those numbers turn up interesting paradoxes, though:

Miami has the 7th most Catholic population of any city in the nation. 31 percent of the population claims to be Catholic.Though, according to a recent analysis by the Public Religion Research Institute, Miami is also one of the most irreligious cities in the country as well. 24 percent of Miamians claim no affiliation with a church the study found, making us the 12th "most Godless" city in America.Most of the rest of the city is some form of protestant. Though, just 5 percent consider themselves Evangelical protestants (i.e. the born-again crowd), slightly less than the 6 percent of the city that is Jewish.

Worse was the inter-school University Herald, which patched five paragraphs from New Times and the New York Times. The only lazier "coverage" was in Politico, which had a lone paragraph with a link to the Times story. Why it was there at all, I can't see. The co-authors, Mark Caputo and Kristen East, raised no political issues over it. No religious ones, either.

But the Times is too passive as atheists talk like an oppressed minority. As you saw, Appignani, the big donor, decried "discrimination against atheists."

Logical follow-up questions would have been, "How do atheists suffer discrimination? How prevalent is it? And is it rising or falling?" But no, the paper itself says that atheists are "still often stigmatized and disparaged in this country." This despite the quote by LeBlanc that "nondeity approaches to explaining our surroundings is not controversial in the academy" (emphasis mine).

Also deficient is telling how "secular Americans" -- not identical with atheists, BTW -- are heading to Washington, D.C. June 2-5 for a "Reason Rally" at the Lincoln Memorial to "showcase their numbers and promote the separation of church and state." Sounds impressive, but so did the "National Day of Reason" on May 5. And as I wrote, only three events were announced, versus 15 last year.

Finally, how about reaction from religion professors at UM? I'll bet one or more of those 14 scholars would have an opinion on a new chair of atheism. I would especially recommend Catherine Newell, who has studied development of both religion and science.

Skepticism and critical thinking are good for everyone, atheists and the religious alike. Even the Bible says, "As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another." But reporters need to level skepticism not just at the religious, but also atheists.

Picture: Atheism logo via

Categories: Main

Sexual assault debates: Journalists weigh in on 'licked cupcakes' at Brigham Young

Monday, May 23, 2016

No college is more averse to bad publicity than a religious school because of its heavy dependence of like-minded donors and the pressure to keep up the appearance of defending the faith. Which is why the recent contretemps about Brigham Young University’s honor code policy and campus rape victims is making the rounds in the mainstream news media.

An honor code -- or lifestyle/doctrinal covenant -- is a set of behaviors a student agrees to before enrolling. At BYU, they include everything from extramarital sex to wearing sleeveless blouses.

Let’s start with how the latest article on the controversy –- from the Los Angeles Times -- handled it:

Madeline MacDonald was a freshman at Brigham Young University when a casual date turned into what she said was a sexual assault.The Seattle 19-year-old had met a man through the online dating site Tinder. He said he was Mormon, which put MacDonald at ease, and she agreed to meet him for hot chocolate.They never made it to a cafe, though. Instead, the man drove her up into the mountains, and there, she says, he molested her.Campus officials opened a sexual assault investigation. But they also opened an inquiry to determine whether MacDonald had violated the private Mormon university’s honor code, which requires that students adhere to the school’s strict rules for proper behavior -- no swearing, coffee, tea, tobacco, alcohol or premarital sex.Suddenly, MacDonald said she felt like a suspect.“At BYU, everybody feels like it’s so safe. It’s ‘the Lord’s school,’” she said. “To acknowledge that I’m telling the truth requires admitting it’s not that safe.”MacDonald, now a junior, is among several women calling for greater protections for sexual assault victims at BYU -- including amnesty from potential honor code violations. A growing number of women say such policies are discouraging reports of sexual assault. 

We’ve talked about lifestyle-doctrinal covenants a lot in recent months. These can be actual documents that students and faculty attending these schools must sign before they enroll or are employed. Agree or disagree with their existence, they’re out there and covenants are what regulates who teaches, who attends and their behavior while affiliated with the campus. They define the borders of a faith-based voluntary association.

Think of it as branding. To maintain a certain image or lifestyle or quality of course offerings, the school wants to make sure a certain type of student attends there and a certain type of faculty teach there.

BYU makes its covenants very clear at the outset. A few years ago while applying for journalism teaching jobs around the country, I saw just the job I wanted at BYU. On the first page, the application stated that I had to agree not to drink coffee if I was to teach there. When I contacted the department head to ask why they had such a ridiculous standard (especially when it comes to the field of journalism where everyone lives off of coffee while on deadline),  I was told they couldn’t budge from this important church doctrine

I never applied. But it occurred to me at the time there were lots of folks out there who would have applied and just hoped no one saw them sipping on java. I also wonder if there are certain students who apply to BYU (and other religious colleges and universities) but never intend to follow its strict rules.

The Los Angeles Times story goes on to mention another victim who went on the record about a rape but who also got fingered for honor code violations. Protests on campus about BYU policy got intense enough that the BYU president had to post a YouTube video saying the school was overhauling how it responds to sexual assault victims. However, he very much stood for keeping the school’s honor code.

Honor codes don’t usually get good press and this one is no exception. Not only does the honor code get trashed; the reporter goes on to typify one of the 10 fastest-growing cities in the country as a 19th-century throwback:

Provo is a place where the honor code is written into off-campus housing contracts, apartments restrict where and when men can visit, and young women's first visit to a gynecologist is often for a “premarital exam.” Abstinence education often comes in the form of parables like the “chewed gum” or “licked cupcake.”“They lick the cupcake and say, ‘Who wants it now?'” said Kate Kelly, 35, a BYU graduate and a lawyer.

Is this the famous Kate Kelly, the feminist pioneer who was excommunicated from the church two years ago? It would have been more honest for the professionals at the Los Angeles Times to have pointed out this wasn’t a run-of-the-mill BYU grad.

Nearly a month earlier, the New York Times gave its read on the situation and one thing they did right is spell out exactly what happened to MacDonald on this ill-fated date. It also gave more of a national view as to what other colleges doing in terms of amnesty for students who witness or report sexual assault if they also broke college rules on drugs or alcohol.

One of the women they cite, named Brooke, is a puzzler:

But after Brooke, 20, told the university that a fellow student had raped her at his apartment in February 2014, she said the Honor Code became a tool to punish her. She had taken LSD that night, and also told the university about an earlier sexual encounter with the same student that she said had been coerced. Four months after reporting the assault, she received a letter from the associate dean of students.“You are being suspended from Brigham Young University because of your violation of the Honor Code including continued illegal drug use and consensual sex, effective immediately,” the letter read.

Think about it. She’s had a bad sexual experience with some guy. Instead of avoiding this guy like the plague, she later takes LSD in the company of this same student; LSD is not exactly what you want to be on when you’re on the watch for a potential rapist. It’s no huge surprise that this man violates her again. I’m not excusing BYU’s response to all this, but there must have been a lot of head swiveling when they got her complaint.

Naturally I also turned to the Salt Lake Tribune, which had many stories on the issue in April and much better sources. The Tribune revealed that there are more BYU students who allege that simply reporting a rape gets you automatically investigated for Honor Code violations. It also revealed some creepy details of how BYU was less than open about her case.

MacDonald obtained records of her investigation from the Honor Code Office through a request under federal laws that regulate students' education records. When she went to the Honor Code Office this week to review the file, she said she was not allowed to make copies or take photos of the documents."I had to sit in a room with people watching me. ... I couldn't bring anyone with me, and they made me leave my cellphone in the other room," she said. She was allowed to take notes, she said…MacDonald said her biggest surprise was the level of detail in a case in which the only student involved was the alleged victim."Every single word I'd said to anyone in the university was cataloged," MacDonald said. "Even conversations I had with secretaries, and cracked stupid jokes — those stupid jokes were in the file."

After a public outcry and a Tribune editorial calling on BYU to change its ways, the university has promised to review how it handles its conduct codes. It just up a web site asking for public feedback on the topic. At the same time, leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are furious at how the Tribune has handled the story. Their May 19 press release explains why. 

The Los Angeles Times piece, coming as late as it did, made a strong case that BYU is inculcated with a ‘rape culture’ that is tied to Mormon views on premarital sex and sexual purity. Was there a strong voice on the other end refuting that position? No.

Abstinence is a tough sell in any culture. Reporters might not agree with BYU’s worldview, but before sinking to the level of gum and cupcakes, they could at least try to understand it.

Categories: Main

And in the end, the #hatecake hoax failed to go viral (So what about the pastor's church?)

Monday, May 23, 2016

So, for those of you who keep sending me links: Yes, I heard that the Rev. Jordan Brown of Austin recently announced that his #hatecake lawsuit against Whole Foods was a hoax.

Well, that wasn't exactly what he said. Hold that thought.

Now, I will admit that I didn't see that hoax story when it went viral on social media -- because it didn't go viral on social media (like the earlier story in which Brown made his accusations). This lack of social-media activity is one of two angles in the story that still interest me.

Wait, maybe this story didn't trend on Facebook the second time around because. ... Oh well, nevermind.

Looking at the small amount of coverage this story received, the Austin American-Statesman report was rather interesting because of what it didn't come right out and say. Take that headline for example: "Pastor to drop lawsuit against Whole Foods over anti-gay slur on cake."

So why is he dropping his lawsuit?

The man who accused Whole Foods Market of writing a homophobic slur on a cake will drop a lawsuit against the grocery chain.

“The company did nothing wrong,” Jordan Brown, a pastor of a small Austin church, said in a statement. “I was wrong to pursue this matter and use the media to perpetuate this story.”

Brown had sued Whole Foods on April 18, announcing the lawsuit publicly while flanked by his lawyers. He emotionally told reporters that he had ordered a cake with “Love wins” written in frosting, Brown said. The cake he picked up, he said, had a homophobic slur on it.

Whole Foods fired back almost immediately, releasing surveillance footage of Brown purchasing the cake -- evidence, the grocery chain said, showed that Brown was lying. The company filed a counter suit against Brown.

So how did the slur get on the cake? Who wrote you know what in semi-matching icing?

Further down in the story, a statement from Whole Foods finally states the obvious:

“Given Mr. Brown’s apology and public admission that his story was a complete fabrication, we see no reason to move forward with our counter suit to defend the integrity of our brand and team members,” Whole Foods’ statement said. The company’s counter suit had sought at least $100,000 in damages from Brown.

Brown, an openly gay pastor at the Church of Open Doors, which met regularly at the AMLI South Shore apartment complex on East Riverside Drive, issued several apologies with his statement announcing the end of his lawsuit.

“I want to apologize to Whole Foods and its team members for questioning the company’s commitment to its values,” Brown wrote in his statement.

So what Brown did was question the company's commitment to its values? Really?

In this case, the New York Times coverage, it seems, was much more direct and too the point:

The case of the chocolate cake slur, it seems, was simply a hoax.

An openly gay Texas pastor who had accused Whole Foods of defacing his cake with an anti-gay slur dropped his lawsuit against the grocery chain on Monday, issuing an apology that said he was wrong to “perpetuate this story.”

“The company did nothing wrong,” the pastor, Jordan Brown, said in a statement. “I was wrong to pursue this matter and use the media to perpetuate this story.” He also apologized to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community “for diverting attention from real issues.”

I read quite a bit about this case and, I must confess, I was struck by the fact that people online were asking more detailed questions about the facts of the case, and the cake, than most of the reporters who were assigned to cover it.

A hint of that made it into the Times report. I, for one, want to know more about the "expert" referenced here? Perhaps this was one of the pastry pros who were taking part in the online chatter about the case?

The case of the anti-gay cake slur had captivated the Texas capital, where Whole Foods is based, as thousands of people debated the evidence on social media and in comment threads on The Austin-American Statesman.

The credibility of Mr. Brown’s story took a beating as armchair detectives, including at least one icing expert, raised doubts about his timeline and the plausibility of his claim that he had failed to notice the offending word through the cake’s clear-topped box while in the store.

File that one away, folks. We live in an age in which journalists do not need to explain the details of testimony from an "icing expert."

The final paragraph of the Times story referenced the much-avoided religion angle of this story -- the status of Brown's mysterious independent church:

In his statement, Mr. Brown also apologized to the bakery associate who came under scrutiny, his partner, his lawyer and the Church of Open Doors, where he is the pastor.

"Is" the pastor? In present tense? Am I the only person who, at this point, remains interested in the degree to which this congregation is alive and well? To what degree did it exist in the first place, other than in social media?

If you visit the congregation's website (its Facebook page appears to have been taken down or moved to secret status, while a Twitter feed has gone quiet), there has been no announcement of a service since before April 3. Is that a story?

As I said at the beginning, in some ways the story of Brown and his tiny flock is a perfect example of how hard it is for journalists to cover the totally independent churches that are springing up in America and around the world. So was there a connection, in terms of motive, between Brown's #hatecake campaign and the status of his attempts to build a church? Should reporters continue to try to cover this mysterious church?

At least one other journalist is, it seems, curious about this angle. Here is a chunk of a column by Mitch "The Five People You Meet in Heaven" Albom of The Detroit Free Press. He is asking some of the same questions I am.

For starters, Brown made his apology:

... through a statement, not a news conference like the one he called to shed false tears. What was his motivation? Money? That’s shameless. Attention? That’s sad. Building support for the gay community by inventing discrimination against it? That’s sick.

I would add one additional question: Trying to gain publicity to kick-start his personal church project?

Brown set back every future case of intolerance, allowing critics to ask whether it’s real or fabricated. We’d do well to not jump the gun going forward, instead doing what Whole Foods did: investigate, get the facts, then let them speak for themselves. Whole Foods, admiringly, dropped a countersuit against Brown, essentially declaring the matter over.Meanwhile, Brown should do more than apologize to his small church. He should resign from it. If he was willing to let his phony accusation cost someone a job, his contrition ought to cost him his. Besides, who on Earth would listen to a pastor who claimed “Love wins” while trying so hard to defeat it?

The #hatecake story may be over. Unless, of course, there are reporters in Austin or elsewhere who are interested in the religion ghost in, ironically, a news story about a pastor and his alleged flock.

IMAGES: The first image, and the insert in the main text, are screenshots from the Church of Open Doors website.

Categories: Main

That getting religion thing: 'Religion and the Media' group launched in British parliament

Sunday, May 22, 2016

If you have followed GetReligion very long then you are probably aware that questions are also be asked on the other side of the Atlantic about the fact that a high percentage of mainstream journalists just don't understand the basic facts about many religious news events and trends.

In England, a group called Lapido Media is at the heart of most of these "getting religion" discussions. It's work in the field of media literacy has been mentioned quite a bit here at GetReligion in the past.

Now the discussion has moved a notch or two higher, according to a recent notice posted online. To make a long story short, we're talking about the launch of a new "All Party Parliamentary Group on Religion and the Media."

Brainchild of Yasmine Qureshi, Pakistan-born MP for Bolton South East, and moderated by Bishop of Leeds, Rt Revd Nick Baines, it is part of a range of responses to the Living with Difference Report (.pdf here) published earlier this year by the Woolf Institute’s Commission on Religion and Belief in Public Life in Britain.

The theme of an initial round-table discussion was "Is there a perceived lack of religious literacy in the media?" The speaker was a friend of this blog, Lapido Media founder Dr Jenny Taylor.

You can click here to get a .pdf document of her remarks. Please do so. But here is a short taste:

I speak as a journalist who trained with the Yorkshire Post and has worked in news all her life except for the five years of my doctorate which was completed in 2001, before 9/11.For sure the media has a problem with religion. After all, as Bernard Levin famously quipped: "Vicars rhymes with knickers.’ It’s difficult to take seriously."It was not until my own eyes became religiously attuned that I realized the West had become a menace to the whole world because of its secularist blinkers.The world is full of religion -- and we meddle at our peril unless we understand that.Where the media do not “get religion” they pose a serious threat to democracy and ultimately to the well-being of the country, through misinterpretation and bias which governments then feed off. The media tell the nation’s stories. Where there are lacunae in Britain as vast as we have at present, whole communities remain ghostlike, their reality a chimera.

Religion (community) ghosts? You think?

Taylor then mentions a book -- "Blind Spot: When Journalists don’t get Religion" for Oxford University Press -- produced by scholars and journalists connected to the Media Project, the same team that works with GetReligion and a host of other continuing education projects based at The King's College in New York City.

Thus, let me stop there. The hope is that GetReligion can actually work with Lapido on some of these projects, including a new book on media literacy on religion and, hopefully, some events in the United Kingdom.

Stay tuned. And follow Lapido Media on Twitter for updates, as well.

Categories: Main

Theodicy in the White House race? Believers facing a choice that is more than political

Saturday, May 21, 2016

The first time someone sent me the link to this obituary from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, I was sure that it had to be a fraud, perhaps something produced by those talented tricksters at The Onion.

Ah, but the URL did, indeed, take readers to the proper news website in Richmond.

Now, when you think something is a fraud one of the first things you do is head over to to see if that crew had rendered a verdict. Indeed, the Snopes team is flying a "True" flag. This citizen wanted to send a message to the world.

Thus, I mentioned this instantly viral obituary during this week's "Crossroads" podcast discussing the whole "lesser of two evils" conflict that many cultural and religious conservatives are experiencing during this election year. Click here to tune that in and we'll come back to my Universal "On Religion" column on that topic.

But here is the top of the obituary in question. When host Todd Wilken and I were discussing this on the air, I just couldn't get my self to use the woman's name. Why? Well, because the first couple of people I discussed this with -- face to face -- kind of turned pale and asked if suicide was involved. The answer is "no."

NOLAND, Mary Anne Alfriend. Faced with the prospect of voting for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Mary Anne Noland of Richmond chose, instead, to pass into the eternal love of God on Sunday, May 15, 2016, at the age of 68. Born in Danville, Va., Mary Anne was a graduate of Douglas Freeman High School (1966) and the University of Virginia School of Nursing (1970). A faithful child of God, Mary Anne devoted her life to sharing the love she received from Christ with all whose lives she touched as a wife, mother, grandmother, daughter, sister, friend and nurse. ...

By the way, for those touched by this notice, it ends with this:

In lieu of flowers, memorial contributions can be made to CARITAS, P.O. Box 25790, Richmond, Va. 23260 (

So are we talking about a mere political dilemma in this case? Yes, for some people, this may be a matter of politics, alone. But for millions of cultural and moral religious conservatives this election is evolving into a truly moral or theological problem.

You could even say that, for some, that familiar term "theodicy" is coming into play. In other words, some are asking: Would a truly good and merciful God allow voters to end up choosing between Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton? Look at it this way, this choice is not as extreme as the one facing Christians in Syria in the past generation or so, where their options are a thug dictator (who doesn't want to kill them at this point in time) or various forms of radical Islam -- with ISIS at the bleeding edge -- whose approach to minority religions is much more deadly.

So here is how I framed this discussion in my column:

The nightmare scenario focuses on a stark, painful moral choice.It’s Election Day. A Catholic voter who embraces her church’s catechism, or perhaps an evangelical committed to ancient doctrines on a spectrum of right-to-life issues, steps into a voting booth. This voter is concerned about the social impact of gambling, attempts at immigration reform, a culture fractured by divorce, battles over religious liberty and the future of the Supreme Court.In this booth, the choice is between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Period.“That’s the scenario people I know are talking about and arguing about,” said Stephen P. White of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., author of the book “Red, White, Blue and Catholic.”Many religious conservatives believe they “face a choice between two morally repugnant candidates,” he added. “The reality of that choice is starting to drive some people into despair. ... I understand that, but I think it would be wrong for people to think that they need to abandon politics simply because they are disgusted with this election.”

That's all I'll say at this point, because there is much, much more to this discussion.

As we talked, I experienced a memory flash from a very different time in my life (back when I could best be described as a Christian socialist). Make sure you catch the part of this discussion in which we talk about a dear friend of mine -- decades ago -- who lost his Christian faith because he could not believe that a good, loving and just God allowed Ronald Reagan to become president.

Enjoy the podcast?

Categories: Main

Beam me up, Church of Scotland: Some details missing in mini-feature about online baptism

Friday, May 20, 2016

Religion News service had me at the headline on this report from the other side of the pond: "Church of Scotland to consider online baptisms, Communion."

I think that's part of my problem with this very, very short news story.

Now, when you hear the phrase "online Communion," what image do you get in your mind's eye? At the very least, is has to be a rather Protestant image in that it involves worship taking place in a digital, online, visual environment -- with the person on the other side of this liturgical encounter actually consuming analog bread and wine (or something).

Where do the Communion elements come from? Are they shipped to the online flock members, perhaps through a liturgical variation on Amazon Prime? Do the worshippers provide their own elements (raising the previously "or something" issue).

These are questions that any journalist would ask, right? I mean, don't we need to define our terms?

This brings me to the totally new sacramental concept -- at least for me, as an Eastern Orthodox Christian -- that is included in this report. What, precisely, is a rite of "online baptism"? Here is the context:

CANTERBURY, England (RNS) -- The Church of Scotland will launch a two-year investigation into the possibility of introducing online baptisms, Communion and other Christian sacraments.The church, known as The Kirk, has seen its rolls fall by almost one-third between 2004 and 2015, to just under 364,000 members. Some 750 commissioners from congregations across Scotland and other parts of the world are scheduled to meet in Edinburgh May 21-27 for its annual General Assembly.The church’s Legal Questions Committee, which is responsible for advising the General Assembly, the church’s lawmaking body, is pushing for “a wide-ranging review of practice and procedure which is impacted by the use of new technology in church life.” It adds: “Now is the time to open up a wide range of discussion on these contemporary developments.”

Brace yourselves, folks. Here comes the rather striking understatement in this story that made my head spin.

Baptism, one of the key Christian sacraments, normally demands the physical presence of the person undergoing the rite.

Uh, that would be a big 10-4, based on the content of my church-history classes in college and graduate school. What does the word "normally" mean in that sentence? The story then adds:

Section 9.6 of the General Assembly’s Blue Book points out that there are no easy answers to some of the questions being asked, “but, in a world where the fastest growing communities are being fostered online, the committee believes that now is the time to open up a wide range discussion on these contemporary developments.”

Please know that, yes, I confess that I have theological questions. However, I am writing this post because I have journalistic questions about this issue and this story.

What does an "online baptism" look like? Yes, I could joke and ask if it involves "beam me up" technology from Star Trek. But, seriously, what are the options here?

I asked some online friends, mostly journalists who are quite tech friendly, what this rite might involve. One Anglican wondered, I will assume in jest, if it might involve the liturgical use of a 3D printer.

Probably not. So let me ask the noble assembly of GetReligion readers the same question: What is an "online baptism"?

The bottom line here: If you were writing a story about a proposal for an online rite of this kind, wouldn't you include a sentence of two describing what happens during this liturgical maneuver? Has anyone proposed a set of prayers and rubrics for such a rite? Maybe the story could include a quote from that?

Picture all of this in your mind. I can see a clergy person on the sanctuary-studio side of the digital screen leading such a rite. What I am trying to imagine is what happens, well, wherever the analog baby or the converted adult is located. Is the authority for this rite -- literally -- in the hands of the layperson who is doing the baptism? Are the church authorities who are discussing this innovation saying that the authority of the priest or pastor comes through the wifi or fiberoptic cable?

All I am saying is that I cannot be the only person struggling to flesh out the details of this scene.

A little help please? I can't find anything online (strangely enough) that provides some answers.

Categories: Main

United Methodists punt on sexuality; some journalists try to cover from their newsrooms

Friday, May 20, 2016

The United Methodist bishops punted.

This tense flock committee-fied. Kicked the can down the road.

All those clichés were coined for news events like the United Methodist Church conference this week. The Methodists faced a choice: to allow gays to be ordained and married in the church, as other old-line Protestant denominations have done; or to keep the belief that both are "incompatible with Christian teaching," as the denomination has said for more than four decades.

Either option might have split the denomination, especially in an era in which the denomination is in decline in America and growing in the more conservative Global South. So the conference voted instead to have a committee study the matter further.

Let's see how mainstream media covered the decision, starting with the Religion News Service -- which, again, distinguishes itself with onsite coverage in Portland, Ore., rather than just phones, emails and bits of other articles.

This 1,100-word article interweaves updates, background and balanced sourcing. It points out, for one, that the delegates did more than simply delay the day of reckoning. Instead, they allowed bishops to have a commission re-examine all references to sexuality in the Book of Discipline, their basic rulebook.

The ambivalent wording reflects denominational worries:

"We continue to hear from many people on the debate over sexuality that our current discipline contains language which is contradictory, unnecessarily hurtful, and inadequate for the variety of local, regional and global contexts," the bishops’ recommendation added.It was a compromise to an issue that has vexed the decision-making body of America’s second-largest Protestant denomination, outnumbered only by the Southern Baptist Convention, at every quadrennial meeting since the UMC first deemed homosexuality "incompatible with Christian teaching" in 1972.But it’s not clear whether the commission will present findings before the next General Conference planned in 2020.

RNS tactfully says that Bishop Bruce Ough, president of the Council of Bishops, "had demurred on rumors" that the bishops were planning a special general assembly for 2018 on a possible split. It was more than a rumor: RNS itself reported on Tuesday that Steve Clunn, coordinator of the pro-gay pressure group Love Your Neighbor Coalition, made the allegation on the group's Facebook page.

Especially perceptive is a quote from Methodist minister Adam Hamilton: "In America, we’re divided as a nation. The United Methodist Church in so many ways represents that broad spectrum of American people. We are Christians who are some on the left, some on the right, and a large number of us are on what we call the extreme center or the radical center."

Besides Hamilton's centrist viewpoint, RNS includes those on each side as well. It features Dorothee Benz of New York, an LGBT activist. It also quotes the Rev. Forbes Matonga of West Zimbabwe for the traditionalist position. Many news media have said that Asian and African churches oppose changing the Methodist stance toward homosexuality, but this is the first time I've seen an African leader actually quoted.

The article captures color as well as facts. It reports a pro-change demonstration outside the convention center. It tells of African delegates singing and asking God for help during a recess. And it tells of an accusation that a bishop who was emceeing a session was "sending hand signals telling people how to vote."

One slightly acid viewpoint on homosexuality:

"In Africa, definitely it is not a big issue," Matonga said. "It only becomes a big issue because we know there are efforts by those who are from the extreme left to come and influence Africa to appear as if it is a human race issue rather than a U.S. issue.["]

I see only a couple of minor sins in the RNS article.  One is mentioning pressure to make the UMC a "more LGBT-friendly church," as if assuming it's currently hostile toward them. There may be also a typo in Matonga's quote, above. I wonder if he really said "human rights issue," not "human race issue"?

Now, a look at The Gray Lady. The New York Times' article, under 500 words, is less than half as long as that of RNS, and much of it is context and summary.

Within that envelope, the story ain't bad. It attempts a road as middle as the committee decision itself:

It was celebrated by L.G.B.T. Methodists and their supporters as a way to buy time and avoid church discipline against more than 100 clergy and clergy candidates who came out as gay in advance of the conference.But it disappointed many conservatives who were exasperated that their church is still arguing over what they see as clear church teachings that prohibit openly gay and transgender clergy, and same-sex marriage. The church’s Book of Discipline, its governing document, says that the "practice of homosexuality" is "incompatible with Christian teaching."

The Times laudably avoids the campaign rhetoric of either side. No "fundamentalist" this or "welcoming" that. It even says "liberals" as well as "conservatives."

I liked also how the Times names two prominent UMC members: Hillary Clinton and George W. Bush, about as differently socially and politically as possible. One more measure of how far the denomination tries to stretch its tent.

The Nashville Tennesseean took more interest in the Methodists, possibly because Tennessee's bishop, Bill McAlilly, presided over the committee vote. McAlilly is the bishop who was accused of hand-signaling how to vote.

Tech developments played a part in that fracas, as the 750-word article says: Social media and live streaming aided an unsuccessful bid to take the gavel from McAlilly. Other Tennessee delegates defended him to the newspaper during an "email interview."

The Tennesseean is starker than RNS in its quote selection, sticking mainly with direct opponents.  Matt Berryman of Reconciling Ministries Network says the UMC decision "represents a significant institutional shift in the direction of inclusion and equality."

On the other side, Good News warns: "If the commission is nothing more than a ploy to further a progressive agenda disguised as a plan for unity, it will lead to deeper division and possibly schism."

But the quotes are not equal. Good News is called "conservative," and the quote is an impersonal issued statement. Berryman, on the other hand, was apparently interviewed live, and Reconciling Ministries is said to seek "full inclusion for LGBT Methodists."

So the UMC conference may have shown the importance of compromise, but the news coverage showed the importance of being there. As that great spiritual leader Woody Allen said, "Eighty percent of success is showing up." 

Categories: Main

M.Z. asks: Why do some journalists avoid using the name of the 'Little Sisters of the Poor'?

Friday, May 20, 2016

It happens. Every now and then, during my daily tsunami of reading mainstream news reports about religion, I look right at something and fail to see it.

Consider, for example, that rather important religion-news ghost in that New York Times story the other day about a certain non-decision decision by the U.S. Supreme Court about the Health and Human Services mandates linked to the Affordable Care Act. The headline on the story was this rather ho-hum statement: "Justices, Seeking Compromise, Return Contraception Case to Lower Courts."

Now, the Supreme Court is in Washington, so I focused most of my post on the Washington Post coverage of this religious-liberty case, which involves quite a few Christian ministries and schools (see this Bobby Ross, Jr., post for more). However, for a variety of reasons, public discussions of the case have boiled down to the Barack Obama administration vs. the Little Sisters of the Poor. In part, as illustrated in the photo at the top of the post, we can thank Pope Francis for that.

My post the other day focused on the fact that many journalists -- headline writers in particular -- seemed frustrated that this case keeps going on and on and on, with one complicated and nuanced development after another. As I put it, the desire of many editors is clear:

The goal is to write that final headline that Will. Make. This. Stuff. Go. Away.

Toward the end of the piece I turned, briefly, to the coverage in The New York Times. To make a long story short, I saw a few interesting details and missed The Big Idea in that report. You see, the college of journalism cardinals at the Times, and in some other newsrooms, found a way to write about this case without mentioning some rather important words, as in, "Little Sisters of the Poor."

Luckily for me, there are now -- more than 12 years into the life of this blog -- lots of people who know how to spot a GetReligion angle in the news. That includes, of course, one M.Z. "GetReligion emerita" Hemingway of The Federalist.

Well, she clobbered this one, in a piece that ran with this headline: "Media Want To Make Sure You Never Hear About ‘The Little Sisters Of The Poor’." You need to read the whole thing, but this is where she kicks into high gear:

A case of “Little Sisters of the Poor” vs. “Powerful Men in Government” is a gift from the editorial gods. But our media are too busy scare-quoting “religious liberty” and pushing an authoritarian agenda. Actually identifying the Little Sisters, much less neutrally profiling them, much less giving their story the weight it deserves, that just won’t do. We have stories to cover poorly and narrative agendas to push.It’s not just the Washington Post that is hiding the name and story of the Little Sisters of the Poor. A reader noticed that David G. Savage of the Tribune News Service also hid their name. His piece, very sympathetic to the bureaucracy that seeks to limit religious freedom, waited until deep in the story to even mention the Little Sisters. Seriously, the piece reads like a press release from HHS if HHS had its press releases written by the savvy public relations teams funded by Planned Parenthood. He finally mentions the sisters in the 13th paragraph because he’s forced to put in a quote from their attorney and their attorney had the decency to name them.

And what happened in the hallowed pages of the great Gray Lady?

But a very special prize goes out to Adam Liptak of the New York Times. We can call it the Linda Greenhouse Award for Supreme Court Advocacy Presented As Reporting.Liptak’s 22-paragraph, 1283-word story manages to mention the Little Sisters of the Poor not once. Not in the headline. Not in the lede. Not in any paragraph or sentence. Not in the captions, even though the captions had to work really hard to avoid mentioning them.If any Republican president went to war against a group called Little Sisters of the Poor, that editorial gift would be unwrapped on every front page of every newspaper in the land. It would lead the nightly broadcast of every television news show. It would be joked about on Saturday Night Live. Comedians and virtue signalers across the land would “destroy” that Republican president every chance they got.

So what is going on in this case, journalistically speaking?

Earlier in her post, M.Z. quoted commentator Mona Charen's National Review take on this issue, which centers on the fact that it is simply hard to win a public-relations war with a group of nuns who have dedicated their lives to helping the least of these. And couldn't they have chosen some other name, one that shows they are actually dangerous religious radicals who threaten the public life and order of these evolving United States? Charon noted:

What’s in a name? ... We shouldn’t fetishize language, but the name of this order of nuns (however it was arrived at -- I have no idea how long it has been around or how it chose its name) is perfectly pitched to make liberals/progressives squirm. Just as the Left used every possible locution to avoid using the term “partial-birth abortion” -- the editors of the Post and others go to some considerable trouble to bury the name “Little Sisters of the Poor.”Isn’t that interesting? That our media that seek out and histrionically elevate every sympathetic plaintiff when it comes to cases advancing sexualityism suddenly have trouble even naming the Little Sisters of the Poor?

Meanwhile, there is a kind of newsy postscript to this affair.

The other day, M.Z. had a rather interesting dialogue with a major reporter on a topic related to this -- as in the trend in many elite newsrooms towards wrapping "scare quotes" around the term religious liberty (an issue covered many times by our own Bobby Ross, Jr.).

Follow this one all the way to the end:

And … SCENE.

— Mollie (@MZHemingway) May 18, 2016

Stay tuned. This story isn't going away -- not yet.

MAIN IMAGE: From photos distributed by the Little Sisters of the Poor.

Categories: Main

Thumbs up or down? The Los Angeles Times offers wink, wink verdict on weeping icon

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Do you remember the relatively minor buzz in the mainstream press not that long ago about the icon -- located on the iconostasis at the front of an Orthodox sanctuary -- that appeared to be exuding drops of myrrh?

If you don't, click here for the GetReligion post on that story. It helped, of course, that this story broke as some journalists were seeking a hook for this year's story on the Orthodox celebration of the greatest feast in Christian life -- Pascha (or Easter).

There were television crews that went face-to-face with the icon, such as in this local CBS report. However, it was the story in The Chicago Tribune that started the mini-boomlet in coverage. You may recall that this is how it began

Since July, tiny droplets of fragrant oil have trickled down an icon of St. John the Baptist in front of the altar at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church in Homer Glen. Parishioners believe the oil has healing properties and that its origins are a blessing from God. ...Whether it's an act of God or a chemical reaction, no one really knows. And frankly, few in the Greek Orthodox community care. A rational explanation is irrelevant if what seems to be a supernatural event draws people toward God, clergy say.

As you would expect, this was a case in which the word "miracle" went safely into scare quotes. However, this news story -- to my surprise -- ended up drawing editorial-page comment in The Los Angeles Times, of all places. Some people sent me the URL saying the editorial was wonderful, from a faith perspective, while others thought it was horrible.

The headline: "Is it a miracle? Does it matter as long as you believe it is?" Please read it all and make your own decision.

Here is some crucial material at the end of this short piece:

Are there are explanations for these events that are grounded in prosaic reality and not spiritual mystery? Absolutely. Some kind of chemical reaction or some other atmospheric effect in the church might be making the painting exude oil. It could even be a case of fraud: A cynical sacristan could be dabbing aromatic myrrh oil on the painting at night when everyone else has gone. People afflicted with ailments could be recovering for dozens of unrelated reasons. To their credit, Greek Orthodox officials and the parish priest haven't tried to dispel the notion that there is some rational explanation for all this.

This is hardly the first religious statue or icon to suddenly weep or exude oil or water. In every case, people come to see, excited, hopeful, joyous.

But waiting for a miracle isn't the point. It's really not some statue on a wall, it's not some liquid on a cotton ball that makes the world a better place. It's all of us believing that we can make something happen that “cures” us and makes us open to change, which in turn makes the community where we live a better place.

Well, journalists have confirmed that the sanctuary has a 24-hour security camera system. No evil trickster is dabbing myrrh on the icon, day after day after day.

Once again we also have the mysterious proposal of an "atmospheric effect" that is touching this icon and none of the others that were created on the same wooden structure at the same time with precisely the same methods. So far, no one has stepped forward to propose what kind of "atmospheric effect" we are talking about that can produce 5,000 or so cotton swaps worth of oil.

As I said in my first piece on this story:

So something in the air conditioning is interacting with egg tempera and natural pigments (icons are written/created through a very traditional process) and the result is a fragrant oil? That's a logical, rational explanation?Maybe. But let's have an expert or two make a case for that. Shall we?At the same time, it would have helped to have had some direct observation of the phenomenon itself. As someone who has faced a weeping icon, (and, yes, I am an Orthodox layman) let me state that one of the first things that hits you is the smell -- which has often been compared to crushed rose petals. It's not something that one often encounters in random condensation on a physical object.

From my perspective, this Los Angeles Times may be one of the greatest statements ever of how many -- not all -- mainstream journalists view religion.

You see, it really doesn't matter if any of these religious truth claims are true. It doesn't matter if some religious events and trends involve circumstances that are hard to explain with the laws of science.

All that matters is that people feel nice things and then do nice things for each other. Oh, and these religious feelings are supposed to make us all open to change. Hint, hint, hint.

Sigh. Take that, saints and martyrs through the ages. Take that, Pope Francis. Take that, Martin Luther King, Jr. Take that Lottie Moon. Take that Dorothy Day. Take that Sojourner Truth. Take that Lech Walesa. Take that Eric Liddell. Take that, Mother Teresa. It really doesn't matter if any of that religious stuff that inspired you is real, what's important is that it produces the kinds of actions that warm the hearts of editors at The Los Angeles Times.

Meanwhile, I would like to end with my JOURNALISTIC question from the earlier GetReligion piece. If people want to debate the status of this icon (and many others like it), then that's more than appropriate. Let's ask practical, journalistic questions and quote people on the record. Thus:

... I am not asking for a theological opinion here. I am not asking a major newspaper to validate a miracle, somehow. I am asking -- to be specific -- what the icon and the oil smelled like to the journalist or journalists who faced it.So let me ask: yes or no. Did anyone linked to the newspaper actually touch and smell the oil?

IMAGES: Photos posted by

Categories: Main

Female feticide (in India and America): The stories that The Atlantic didn't cover

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Every so often, there comes an article that so misses the forest for the trees, you get whiplash when your eyes jerk back to re-read it. Such is The Atlantic’s recent piece: “Should a Woman be able to Abort a Fetus Just because it’s Female?”

Of course it’s not, your mind screams before reading the piece which wavers on the question. Sex-selective abortions aren’t new; in fact they’re called "female feticide" in India where it happens all the time and where it’s common to see kindergartens with hardly any female children. I did a four-part series on this back in 2007. More on that in a minute.

First, the current discussion at The Atlantic:

Over the past year, Indiana hasn’t exactly been a leader in anti-discrimination law. Last spring, the state faced massive protests and boycott threats for legislation that may have facilitated discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. And this winter, nascent efforts to pass LGBT protections in hiring, housing, and public accommodations quickly failed.But in March, the state did pass nearly unprecedented discrimination protections for one group: unborn fetuses. The new law prohibits abortions sought because of “race, color, national origin, ancestry, sex, or diagnosis or potential diagnosis of the fetus having Down syndrome or any other disability.” Doctors who perform them can be held liable in a lawsuit and sanctioned by Indiana’s medical boards.Pro-life advocates celebrated the law’s passage. Indiana’s legislators wanted to make sure “ours is a policy that values life no matter who you are, where you come from or what your disability might be,” as the bill’s sponsor, Casey Cox, said.But whether they intended to or not, these lawmakers exposed a set of difficult moral questions that pro-choice progressives tend to ignore in their quest to defend legal abortion. Should couples be able to abort their female fetuses -- and it’s almost always female fetuses -- in the hopes of having the boy they really wanted? Should a mom, ashamed at having a mixed-race baby, be able to abort because of race? Should parents give up on a baby with Down syndrome? What about Tay-Sachs, which almost always kills children by the time they turn four?

The Atlantic, by the way, is one of the few publications that uses "pro-life" and "pro-choice" designations rather than that pro-abortion-rights/anti-abortion lingo that many newspapers are using. That is good. And the rest of the article does explore the moral ambiguities that liberals face when they try to match the wishes of disability-rights groups (which tend to argue against abortion if the child will be handicapped) against that of abortion-rights groups that want to abort for any reason.

What’s problematic is the article quotes no conservatives nor backers of this bill. What this feature has is a long conversation among people who want unlimited access to abortion and who can’t bring themselves to admit the backers of this law have outfoxed them. Anyone going up against the law, after all, can be accused of wanting to abort black or brown or female or handicapped babies.

So the piece simply accuses the backers of hypocrisy and using the disabled as a political pawn.

But just because they draft morally challenging legislation, pro-life lawmakers in Indiana aren’t necessarily intending to engage with the moral ambiguity of abortion.“I think that, unfortunately, in this bill, people with disabilities were used to push forward a political agenda [of] some of the right-to-life organizations that, honestly, have never cared about disability-related issues in the past,” Dodson said.

It’s truly too bad the author only made a passing reference to the monstrosity that is the world center for gender-selective abortion.

In India, it’s a cause that cuts across all religions. The orange-clad man whose photo is shown here (in the thumbnail photo out front) is Swami Agnivesh, a social activist in New Delhi. He places the responsibility for massive gender imbalances in India at the feet of a Hindu religious establishment that favors son-preference.

And the woman shown with this article holding the two children is Varsha Hitkari, a young woman I found in Kanpur, a fetid, overcrowded metropolis of 2.6 million in Uttar Pradesh state that’s known for its tanneries. After bearing two daughters and no sons, her husband tried to strangle her. One of her brothers rescued her, but she was in a coma for six weeks and was still wrestling with brain damage when we dropped by.

The entire 2007 series lies at the bottom of my web site here and it's hard to read the pieces, which took us from Delhi to Haryana state, to the cities of Bangalore, Kanpur, Lucknow, Jaipur and others. We researched how once pregnant Indian women find out at 20 weeks gestation that their child is a girl, the abortion rate is stunning. We unsuccessfully tried interviewing the heads of General Electric in Bangalore. The company helped manufacture the cheap ultrasound machines that helped women learn the sex of their child -- and plan on whether to keep or abort their offspring.

There is a rage that overtakes you after three weeks of talking with people about this evil. The way this thing polled out among religious groups is that Jains and Sikhs had the highest abortion rates, followed by Hindus. After all, it’s a Hindu proverb that says, "May you be the mother of 100 sons."

Christians had the lowest rates. However, resistance to gender-selection abortion cut across religious lines. I met some amazing Sikh physicians who were fighting this trend and who had taken massive losses professionally for their stand.

And these are the voices that The Atlantic article ignored. Instead of a dispassionate piece about the politics of anti-abortion bills, why not do some research among expatriate Indian communities in the United States to see if immigrants are practicing "female feticide" here? That was an angle I longed to put into my story, but there was no room.

And are other immigrant groups doing it? One thinks of the Chinese who come from a country that until recently, pushed a one-child policy for decades that encouraged women to abort girl fetuses until they were pregnant with a boy. There comes a time when reporters need to stop scorning a proposed law simply because Republicans are behind it and instead draw us a picture of the horrors it’s trying to prevent. They need to cover the voices on both sides of this painful debate.

You don't have to go to India to do that. The answer may be here at home.

Photos by Julia Duin.

Categories: Main

Somebody somewhere said something nutty about Muslims — oh, he's a 'Christian pastor'

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Talk about the Elephant in the room.

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump's call for "a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” has spurred months of news media focus on alleged "Islamophobia."

In general, that drumbeat of coverage hasn't thrilled your friendly GetReligionistas:

The media have a "phobia," and it's time they got rid of it:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) December 15, 2015

Sorry, Heartland of America, you suffer from a major case of Islamophobia. (Maybe.)

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) January 25, 2016

That whole Islamophobia thing again: Lots of stereotypes, little actual #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) February 10, 2016

'Islamophobia': In reports on student kicked off Southwest flight, there's that term again. What's wrong with that?:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) April 21, 2016

Neither did I expect to be impressed by this latest story from the Washington Post:

"His beliefs are total opposite": Republican tries to block nominee from office because he is a Muslim

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) May 19, 2016

The lede:

A Christian pastor in the nation’s third-most-populous county tried to stop a Muslim man from serving in the local Republican Party because of his religion.The massive jurisdiction of Harris County, Tex. — with 4 million residents in the city of Houston and its surroundings — has more than 1,000 precincts, and the Republican Party appoints a chair for every single one. Approving the people picked by a committee to fill some of those spots should have been a run-of-the-mill task.

But Trebor Gordon stood up at a meeting of the county’s GOP on Monday night. He said that Syed Ali — a 62-year-old Houston resident who has been a loyal Republican since the Reagan administration — should not be appointed.

Gordon said that Ali should be blocked “on the grounds that Islam does not have any basis or any foundation. It is the total opposite of our foundation.”

“Islam and Christianity do not mix,” Gordon said. Party chairman Paul Simpson said that Gordon serves as chaplain for the Harris County Republican Party and is a part-time pastor at a Houston-area church.

My knee-jerk translation after reading the first few paragraphs: Somebody somewhere said something nutty about Muslims — and now it's national news because he's a "Christian pastor."

To be sure, there's a certain level of truth to that assessment.

But after reading the whole story, I came away with a different point of view. I appreciate both the tone and the approach of the writer and the Post. 

Why is that? For one thing, the term "Islamophobia" never rears its vague, ugly head. For another, the newspaper avoids broad generalizations about Republicans and Christians and others who might have opinions on Muslims. 

Instead, the Post quotes specific sources by name and allows them — in their own, nuanced words — to respond to what the pastor said, including this speaker:

Ali did not speak during the debate. One precinct chair, Dave Smith, came to his defense. “In our founding document, the Constitution, even back 230 years ago, when our founding fathers were establishing rules by which our country would be governed, they specifically put in there: no religious test,” Smith said. “No religious test is good enough for the founding fathers. It’s good enough for me.

The newspaper also contacts Ali and gives him a chance to address what was said:

Ali told The Washington Post on Wednesday that he was surprised but not hurt by Gordon’s motion. “It doesn’t bother me at all, as a Republican, as an American, as a Muslim,” he said. “Everyone’s entitled to their view.” He said he appreciated that the majority of the people in the room voted in his favor, and many people he had never met before that night approached him after the meeting to offer “nothing but encouragement.”“After that incident, God blessed those people who come to me,” Ali said.Ali, a Houston resident, said he sees Republican values as deeply consistent with Muslim values. Both the party and the religion value preserving life, helping the needy and treating all people equally, he said. “I am happy and more stronger than before. I’ll do whatever I can do for the country and the party and the people.”

At the end, the Post turns to an active Republican who opposed the pastor's motion to discuss "anti-Muslim viewpoints" in light of Trump's position. The source talks. The newspaper reports. 

No, it's not rocket science. It's Journalism 101, really. But on this often-loaded subject matter, it's a refreshing change.

Categories: Main

Mirror-image time again: So Hillary Clinton went to church and won some endorsements?

Thursday, May 19, 2016

It is time for another mirror-image journalism case study here at GetReligion. The URL for this one came from a friend of this blog who is a church-state issues professional in DC Beltway land. Let's just leave it at that.

Let me stress that the following is not a commentary on the Hillary Clinton campaign.

It is also not intended as a commentary on the tricky issue of religious LEADERS, as opposed to non-profit religious ministries, endorsing political candidates (as opposed to religious leaders and institutions making statements on moral and religious issues that may be linked to political campaigns). To tell you the truth, I am not sure where I would draw the free-speech line on this issue of endorsements by religious leaders, especially in the context of worship rites in their own sanctuaries. Yes, think Donald Trump at Liberty University, if you wish.

My goal is to discuss a journalism issue. So here is the top of the recent Associated Press report to which our friend pointed us. Read carefully:

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Hillary Clinton is making a big final push in Kentucky, where rival Bernie Sanders hopes to extend his winning streak and further delay her clinching the Democratic presidential nomination.Big-name surrogates have been sent, television ads are playing and Clinton is touring the state in advance of Tuesday’s voting. On Sunday, the former secretary of state dropped in at Louisville churches and held rallies in Louisville and Fort Mitchell. Sanders on Sunday made a swing through Kentucky as well.“We need a president who will work every single day to make life better for American families,” Clinton said at a union training center in Louisville. “We want somebody who can protect us and work with the rest of the world. Not talk about building walls, but building bridges.”

Ah, yes. But what happened on Sunday morning during the services in those churches? The DC pro who sent us the URL noted:

Did I miss the big stories asking how it can be that HRC can campaign on Sunday morning at churches without the Reverend Barry Lynn calling her out for violating the separation of church and state and the LBJ-protection 501(c)(3) non-electioneering regulation?

Yes, that is an interesting point. And there is the mirror-image point. Try to imagine the VALID journalistic skepticism that would greet appearances, these days, by the Donald in the pulpits of some massive evangelical Protestant sanctuaries in, oh, Southern California where he needs to win the support of evangelical leaders.

Then again, the candidate could just stand up during the time when visitors are welcomed and wave to the congregation. That's pretty safe.

Or the candidate might simply say something like, "Thank you for letting me visit your lovely sanctuary for worship. I do hope that I can talk to some of your afterwards, or see you at my rally downtown tomorrow. This isn't a place for campaign talk."

So the key is the silence in that AP report.

Did the AP editors staff these church events? Were there reporters from other news organizations present who filed stories from which Associated Press editors could have drawn material for this wire story? Do you think AP leaders would have -- mirror image question -- sought detailed material about what happened in Trump appearances in evangelical megachurches under identical circumstances?

Luckily, The Louisville Courier-Journal did publish material about what happened on that Sunday morning. Here is the key material, near the top of the story:

The Democratic presidential front-runner attended church services at two African-American churches where she said she would attack "discrimination and systemic racism" and then rallied her supporters at a South Louisville union hall where she promised to rebuild the country's crumbling infrastructure. ...In the churches, she got endorsements.At St. Stephen Church in the West End, the Rev. Kevin Cosby called her "she who shall be the next president." And at Canaan Christian Church on Hikes Lane, Sandra Malone, the church's "first lady" and wife of Pastor Walter Malone, asked the congregation to "join Pastor Malone and I by standing on your feet to receive who we pray will be the next president."

Now, calling her the "next president" is not exactly the same thing as a direct endorsement and a call for the faithful in the pews to pull a voting-booth lever for the Clinton cause. However, it is pretty close.

So far, no uproars in the mainstream press. This is interesting, since the support of black church leaders is crucial to the Clinton cause.

Just speaking in terms of journalism: Why the AP silence on this church-state story? Would similar appearances by a Republican candidate, complete with what functions as political endorsements, have received greater scrutiny from journalists? Will the church-state left pursue this case and, if Lynn and others did so, would that draw press attention?

Just asking.

IMAGE: Hillary Clinton on a recent campaign stop in a Memphis church.

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