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Updated: 20 min 7 sec ago

There's more to globalization news than cheap clothes and fresh fruit in winter

1 hour 17 min ago

The age of globalization In which we live has both blessed and cursed humanity with the most far-reaching societal changes since the industrial revolution. International trade deals abound, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership proposal now before Congress, though not without some critics.

Still, with American consumers clamoring for cheaper clothes from Bangladesh and fresh summer fruit and vegetables from Chile in the middle of the Northern Hemisphere winter, it would seem that globalization is a smashing success. So why then would The Washington Post run a 2,500-word analysis of globalization's current state beneath a headline reading, "The Great Unraveling of Globalization"?

This late-April takeout ran in the newspaper's business section, where it consumed, with accompanying art, nearly two full broadsheet pages. Written by Jeffrey Rothfeder, former chief editor at International Business Times, the piece argued that globalization has not brought the economic gains promised -- the cheaper garments and year-round summer fruits beloved by consumers not withstanding.

For most -- in particular the multinational corporations and government coin-counters who fuel the consumer passion -- material gain is what globalization is all about. Given that Rothfeder's piece was a business section project, it's no surprise that he focused solely on globalization's economic side.

But globalization's far-reaching changes affect far more than the bottom line. Journalists interested in the bigger picture should keep in mind that globalization is about more than the facilitation of capital and goods across international borders. It's also about the people effected by the process's revolution in travel and communications -- particularly the world's have-nots desperate for a better life, the immigrants from the globe's failed or failing states who's growing presence in the wealthier West has upset the status quo social balance.

Religious, cultural and racial differences -- not to mention fear and the range of human insecurities -- are some of the most important reasons why globalization has disappointed its critics on the human as well as the economic level.

Just think for a moment about the difficulties Europe currently struggles with because of the hundreds of thousands of African, Asian and Middle Eastern economic and political refugees, some of whom are literally dying as they try to get into the European Union, or, once there, the disappointment and anger so many of them feel when their dreams go unfulfilled because of either their own or society's constraints, or both.

Before going any further I should state that I have a stake in this debate. Just over a decade ago I authored "Spiritual Perspectives on Globalization: Making Sense of Economic and Cultural Upheaval" (SkyLight Paths, 2nd edition, 2005), in which I contrasted the traditional economic and social values of eight major world religions with those of globalization. I imagine many GetReligion readers will not be surprised that I concluded that the cold capitalism and bloated consumption often associated with globalization are largely out of synch with the religious teachings I cataloged.

I wrote that because they are largely out of synch, as anyone who pays attention to the pronouncements of religious leaders must know. By way of example, here's an expression of concern from Pope Francis. And here's another from the leadership of the United Methodist Church.

None of what I'm saying is new. Academics, social activists, journalists and politicians -- in addition to religious leaders -- have long warned that globalization is leading to greater economic and social inequality, the accelerated destruction of environments distant from the malls and supermarkets of Western consumers, and the decline of traditional societies and values at a rate humans have great difficulty internalizing.

The Post piece referenced above is no outlier. Journalistic analyses of globalization's disappointments have for years been easy to find on the Web. Many focus on globalization's accelerated decoupling of corporate responsibility from the best interests of local work force communities. Here's one piece from The Financial Times, here's a second from The Guardian, and here's a third from The Huffington Post.

My point here is to remind those of you who write about globalization that the dots are left unconnected if the consequences of economic activity for humans are left unsaid. It's particularly important for religion journalists whose reporting should consider the values that gird religious beliefs and practices.

Globalization has sparked an unprecedented movement of people. It's revolution in communications allows just about anyone anywhere in the world to understand what they are missing, and to entice them to to go after it.

Globalization is a two-way street. It's not just about better access to cheaper goods and services. It's also about immigration that changes societies. The connection seems obvious. But there's no easy solution to the human fallout, which is why it behooves journalists to keep the connection before the public.

Categories: Main

The Oklahoman writes up a successful coach, but edges away from his beliefs

6 hours 9 sec ago

As a sports profile, The Oklahoman's story on softball coach Phil McSpadden is seasoned and smoothly written. But in GetReligion terms of religious "ghosts," the story is as spectral as they come.

McSpadden, a coach at Oklahoma City University, has turned the tame sport of girls' softball into a hard-hitting, competitive sport -- and with more than 1,475 games, has become the "all-time winningest coach in the history of college softball," The Oklahoman says.

The newspaper chronicles his rise: a degree from Oral Roberts University, a string of baseball jobs at high schools, his philosophy of coaching, his hard-nosed transformation of the girls' team at OCU -- a shift that shocked other teams in the 1990s, but is now widely emulated.

The Oklahoman has all that covered. But along the way, it drops a few hints about a deeper level to McSpadden -- hints that it never develops.

Here are some clues:

* McSpadden turns down OCU's first offer, but the school asks again a week later. "Maybe God’s trying to tell me something," he says.

* After winning four consecutive titles, McSpadden considers leaving coaching: "By man’s standard, I’m successful," he thought, "but am I doing anything significant?"

* He stays in coaching after hearing from the father of one of his former players. "I just want to tell you," he told the coach, "my daughter wouldn’t be a Christian if not for you."

* Whenever panhandlers approach, says The Oklahoman, "Chances are good, he will give them money."

* McSpadden admits he may "cuss." However, "The Lord’s name won’t be taken in vain or anything like that."

Finally, both colleges with which McSpadden has been involved are religiously aligned, as a faithful reader pointed out. Oral Roberts, his alma mater, is charismatic (neo-Pentecostal); OCU, his current employer, is United Methodist aligned.

All of those clues could have/should have opened a line of questions.

When McSpadden asked himself if he was doing anything significant, what else did he imagine himself doing?

When he talked about "man's standard," that should have triggered the question, "As opposed to whose?" The likely answer, especially in a state like Oklahoma, is God's standard. That in turn would lead to: "How would that make your career different?"

And now that McSpadden has been at OCU for a long time, does he think he knows what God was telling him?

How did he influence help that girl toward becoming a Christian? What did he do or say?

The whole spiritual facet suggests other avenues of inquiry. Where does McSpadden worship? What does he read, devotion-wise? Does his faith influence his game or coaching style in some concrete way, besides not taking God's name in vain?

And how about the coach's significant others? This story doesn't quote anyone but McSpadden himself. Does he have a wife and kids? Or maybe a girlfriend? If so, they could surely provide some insights. So would his pastor and other church members. So would his friends off the field and away from the pews.

The Oklahoman does realize that people matter to McSpadden: "He enjoys the challenge of building teams and improving players. That’s good stuff. But building relationships? Having an influence? Making a mark? That’s the best stuff."

OK, I get it. The profile is a sports story. Even the SEO keywords, visible over the headline, read "Sports," "Sports: College" and "Sports: Oklahoma City." But by his own quotes, McSpadden has other things in his life. Things like his faith and ideas on how it should shape his conduct.

If The Oklahoman wants to paint an accurate picture of McSpadden, shouldn't it take an interest in what interests him? Does the spiritual side deserve more than a ghost of a chance?

Thumbnail photo by Jeremy Stevens, courtesy of Oklahoma City University.

Categories: Main

Good grief, Los Angeles Times: Site of Texas shooting linked to Muhammad cartoon contest is no 'small town'

9 hours 6 min ago

When you hear "small town," do you think of Mayberry, U.S.A.?

Or do you think of a sprawling Dallas suburb with a quarter-million residents?

The Los Angeles Times' answer might surprise you:

Texas attack refocuses attention on the fine line between free speech and hate speech: http://t.co/pOckwAljpq

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) May 5, 2015

According to the Times, Garland, Texas — site of Sunday night's shooting outside a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest — is a "small town."

The Los Angeles newspaper uses that description in this lede:

GARLAND,  Texas — Pamela Geller is a 56-year-old Jewish arch-conservative from New York, a vehement critic of radical Islam who organized a provocative $10,000 cartoon contest in this placid Dallas suburb designed to caricature the prophet Muhammad.Elton Simpson was a 30-year-old aspiring Islamic militant from Phoenix who fantasized to an FBI informant about “doing the martyrdom operations” in Somalia and was convicted in 2010 of lying to the FBI about his plans to travel to the volatile eastern African nation.Their lives intersected Sunday in this small town in north-central Texas, an unlikely venue for a violent collision of cultures. After a Sunday evening shootout outside the contest site between police and Simpson and another man firing assault rifles, both gunmen lay dead in the street. And Geller quickly posted a defiant blog: “This is a war on free speech. ... Are we going to surrender to these monsters?”

Just how "small town" is Garland?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it's a little larger than Mayberry — with an estimated population of 234,566.

Apparently, everything in Texas really is bigger, including the "small towns."

The Lone Star State has 1,216 incorporated cities, notes the Texas Almanac. Of those, 1,202 have fewer residents than Garland, which besides being a "small town" ranks as the 12th-largest city in Texas — behind only Houston, San Antonio, Dallas, Austin, Fort Worth, El Paso, Arlington, Corpus Christi, Plano, Laredo and Lubbock.

The "small town" of Garland even makes the list of America's "Top 100 biggest cities." Wonder how many "small towns" can claim that distinction?

Seriously, as one of who has experienced big-city traffic in Garland and written about gang violence in that inner-ring suburb, I'm curious why the Times felt compelled to portray the community as a "placid" suburb and "small town."

The other day, I stressed the importance of news organizations reporting basic facts related to the Texas shooting. 

Honestly, though, I meant more complicated details than the size of the community where the attack occurred. But if the Times can't get that simple fact right, how can anyone take seriously the rest of what the newspaper reports as fact?

My suggestion for the Times next time it's tempted to resort to the hackneyed "it's-so-shocking-that-this-occurred-in-a-small-town!" lede: Report the actual number of residents. Then readers can decide for themselves whether it's Mayberry or one-seventh the size of Manhattan.

Moreover, don't tell me it's a "placid" suburb. Report the actual crime rate.

I'd attempt to critique the rest of the story, but I can't get past the clichés on the location. 

Categories: Main

How, and why, did St. John the Baptist baptize Jesus?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

GERALD’S QUESTION:

When John the Baptist baptized Jesus, what would the baptismal formula have been? “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” wasn’t used until the 2nd Century.

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Even a highly skeptical scholar like John Dominic Crossan considers it historical fact that Jesus inaugurated his public ministry with baptism performed by his cousin John the Baptist, who was “preaching in the wilderness.” There’s also wide agreement that John would have used full immersion in the waters of the Jordan River (those loud amens you hear are coming from Baptists). But as for what words John recited, the Bible doesn’t say though, yes, it doesn’t seem plausible he would have spoken Christianity’s familiar invocation of the triune God that Gerald quotes.

The Acts of the Apostles depicts three baptisms during the earliest phase of the Christian movement, each performed in the name of Jesus and not the Trinity (which is the practice of modern-day “Oneness” Pentecostals). However, the Gospel of Matthew, written in the same time frame as Acts, suggests belief in the three divine persons in the Trinity in its account of Jesus’ baptism  (3:13-17, paralleled in Mark 1 and Luke 3). As Dale Allison comments, “the Son is baptized, the Father speaks, and the Spirit descends.” Then the Trinity becomes explicit in Matthew 28:19 as Jesus directs his followers to make disciples, “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

So invocation of the Trinity quickly emerged in the 1st Century as a permanent feature of Christian baptism.  Scholars’ consensus is that Matthew was written sometime after A.D. 70. In addition we have the earliest church manual, the Didache, which prescribes the same Trinity phrasing for baptisms (verse 7:1). This text could have originated as early as A.D. 50 but more likely by the early 2nd Century. Also, around A.D. 56 Paul concluded 2 Corinthians with this oft-quoted Trinitarian benediction: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”

Of course, it took several centuries for Christianity to settle on a detailed theological explanation of the three persons in the Trinity and the divine and human natures in Jesus Christ.

The Hebrew Scriptures (or Old Testament) prescribe immersions for various purity rituals, seen today mostly in Orthodox Judaism’s mikveh bath for women following the menstrual period. In addition, an immersion ceremony is part of the traditional process for conversion of a Gentile to Judaism (with circumcision added for male converts). A traditional spoken formula is “blessed are you, Adonai, Ruler of the universe, who has sanctified us with the mitzvoth and commanded us concerning immersion.” Jewish  immersion of converts was carried over to baptism as the rite of initiation into the Christian faith.

However, it’s important to understand that John wasn’t presiding at conversion rituals.

Continue reading "How, and why, did St. John the Baptist baptize Jesus?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

OK, we will ask: Why isn't Baltmore Sun nailing local angles in DUI Episcopal bishop story?

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The case of the DUI bishop is, in one sense, over -- in that Bishop Heather Elizabeth Cook is no longer a leader in the Episcopal Diocese of Maryland. In fact, she is no longer an Episcopal bishop at all, nor is she an Episcopal priest or deacon.

That shoe has dropped and has been covered pretty clearly in the newspaper that lands (for several more weeks) in my front yard near the Baltimore Beltway. But what about the rest of the story?

You see, the timeline that looms behind the story of the rise and tragic fall of Cook -- charged with criminal negligent manslaughter, using a texting device while driving, leaving the scene of an accident that resulted in death and three charges of drunken driving -- reveals that this is actually two or three stories unfolding at the same time. There is more to this than the dominoes that began falling in her career after her car struck bicyclist Thomas Palermo.

First of all, there is the issue of her election as bishop, including the "what did they know and when did they know it" facts about her documented struggles with addiction to drugs and alcohol. Then there is the impact of this case -- financial, legal and professional -- on either the leaders of the local diocese, the national church, or both.

However, if you read The Baltimore Sun coverage of Cook's case, it's hard to know what is going on at the diocese and national levels. Meanwhile, The Washington Post coverage has included developments at all levels -- personal, diocesan and national. Remember this scoop when the Post caught details in a newly released Cook timeline document that were missed by the Sun?

So what is going on here? Why isn't the Sun staff interested in crucial LOCAL details about the fallout from this tragedy? Once again, it appears that the nearby Post has quietly scooped the local paper that should be all over this story. Details in a moment.

The most recent Sun report simply documents Cook's fall, as such:

Cook, 58, has resigned as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Maryland, the diocese said. ...A few hours later, the national church issued an accord banning Cook from acting as an ordained person, a ruling that marked the end of a disciplinary investigation the church has been conducting since just after the Dec. 27 crash that killed Thomas Palermo, 41, a married father of two from Baltimore."Heather has been deposed from all ordination — as a bishop, as a deacon, as a priest. She no longer has standing in the church," said the Rt. Rev. Robert Ihloff, former bishop of the Diocese of Maryland.By accepting a June court date, Cook last month entered a plea of not guilty on all 13 charges against her. Ihloff, who has been critical of how the diocese handled the aftermath of the accident, said the outcome brings relief to a church that has been torn and frustrated by the case, now more than four months old.

Maryland Bishop Eugene Taylor Sutton accepted all of this, as did U.S. Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori. And what was learned? Has there been any new evidence of fallout from this event?

The Sun report simply notes:

In the aftermath of the fatal accident, it was revealed that a search committee for the diocese had known Cook had been arrested on the Eastern Shore for drunken driving in 2010 but never shared that information with the men and women who voted on her candidacy. Police said that Cook's blood-alcohol level at the time of her arrest was more than three times the legal limit.The revelation sparked outrage inside and outside the church as well as widespread debate over how the church selects its leaders.The national church will address how it chooses bishops at its general convention in Salt Lake City this summer.

Ah, yes. The upcoming meetings in Utah. That's when the national Episcopal church will also select its new leader? The Post report digs into that fact, a bit, since the Cook story has -- as mentioned earlier -- diocesan and national angles, as well.

Note the major, factual development about the top Maryland bishop that is missing in the local, Sun report, but included in the Post:

Sutton, a popular leader in the denomination, had been talked about as a possible candidate to become presiding bishop when Katharine Jefferts Schori ends her nine-year term this fall, and some speculate that controversy over the handling of Cook has affected his career path. Four nominees to replace Jefferts Schori were announced Friday and Sutton’s name was not among them. Had he been elected this year, he would have been the Episcopal Church’s first African-American presiding bishop.

Yes, it would have been good to have replaced "some speculate" with actual quotes from real Episcopal insiders. Truth be told, Sutton's name has been in the presiding bishop mix for quite some time now and everybody knew it.

Now, he didn't make the list of nominees -- which has been announced to the public. That is important news, in Baltimore. But there is more.

In fact, the list includes another Baltimore angle, which -- unless I have missed it somehow -- has not been reported in The Sun. There is, you see, an African-American in the list of nominees -- The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry -- and note one interesting fact about him:

Curry was the rector of St. James’ Episcopal Church, Baltimore, Maryland, when he was elected on February 11, 2000, to be the 11th bishop of North Carolina. He was ordained and consecrated on June 17, 2000.

So we have a story linked to the Cook case with at least two major Baltimore angles -- the fact that Sutton is not in the list, as long predicted, and that a bishop with strong Baltimore ties is among the nominees to lead the national church.

Did the Sun editors know about this announcement? The religion-beat specialists at The Post did. Shouldn't the actual local newspaper nail the local angles on this kind of local story?

PHOTO: Episcopal Diocese of Maryland

Categories: Main

Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Ever hear people arguing past each other? Each makes seemingly good points, but doesn't answer those raised by the other.

If they only had someone -- oh, like a reporter, for instance -- to put some questions to them. Then, they could understand each other, and the rest of us could understand them both.

Mainstream media fill that function -- partly -- with the fallout over Pope Francis' speech about Junipero Serra this past weekend. Francis praised the 18th century California missionary, scheduled for sainthood in September, as a "founding father" of American religion. Reporters also looked up historians and Indians who branded his work genocidal.

But how the articles treat and background the speech varies vastly.

For some reason, the Associated Press ran two stories on the topic, and on the same day -- Saturday. One is AP's typical overly brief item that raises more questions than it answers.

That story first has Pope Francis praising Serra's "zeal"; then it quotes a native American leader who says the missionary "enslaved converts" and tried to destroy Indian culture. Here's the run-on lede:

Pope Francis on Saturday praised the zeal of an 18th-century Franciscan missionary he will make a saint when he visits the United States this fall but whom Native Americans say brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity.

AP then quotes Ron Andrade, who fires several salvos like:

"No Indians pray to Serra here," said Ron Andrade, a member of the La Jolla Indian Reservation and director of the Los Angeles City and County Native American Indian Commission.When Spanish missionaries moved up the coast in their quest for new souls, "we moved inland, we moved away from the churches," Andrade said in a phone interview about Francis' honoring Serra. "(Serra knew) by destroying the culture and the lifestyle (of Native Americans), they would die."

The wire service doesn't have Francis reply to those and other charges, nor does it ask any Vatican spokesmen. Closest is quoting the pope that Serra helped defend "indigenous people against abuses by the colonizers."

AP Story #2 does ask a Vatican official, but only quotes him saying Serra was " 'a man of his times' but not a brute." AP also has Cardinal Donald Wuerl saying "critics took a 'secular and somewhat prejudiced view of the Church.' "

Against those vague excuses, AP pits an Indian leader, who says: "Some of the things he did personally were disgraceful, as far as we’re concerned. There was enslavement of the Indians, rape of the women, some were put to death."

The story does qualify a bit: "While there’s no record of Serra personally raping or killing, he led a movement that forcefully reshaped California." That excerpt, and the Indian leader's accusation, are lifted from a story in the San Diego Union Tribune.

The Los Angeles Times adds more balance and background, and in the same length. Rather than the "brutal" j'accuse of the AP stories, the Times lede merely calls Serra "controversial."

The article includes Francis saying that Serra "defended" Indians against colonizers, and adds a qualifier about missionaries: "Sometimes we stop and thoughtfully examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings."

We then hear from a Jesuit historian, who says that saints are chosen not because they're perfect, but because their work "had more good than nongood associated with it." The Times also quotes Archbishop Jose Gomez of Los Angeles saying that Serra's writings "reflect genuine respect for the indigenous people and their ways." Gomez' quotes are only in a press release, though.

But hey, lookit this: The Times also gets a viewpoint somewhere in the middle. Historian Steven Hackel, author of a 2013 book about Serra, gives this explanation of the Catholic side:

"What they are trying to say is that Serra protected indigenous people from soldiers and settlers and things would have been a lot worse without him," said Hackel, a professor at the UC Riverside. "There’s very much truth in that … but the other side of the equation was what did those missions … mean for tens of thousands of Indians."After Serra died in 1784, conditions worsened and many indigenous people died and much of their culture was lost, Hackel said.

The usually balanced Cruxnow runs a surprisingly slanted apologia, with two historians and an archaeologist in favor of Serra -- and no detractors. One is the guy who told the Times that Serra did "more good than nongood." Another says Serra's writings show a "total devotion" to teaching and preaching, and that five nations have already put him on a postage stamp.

The most substantive are eight paragraphs from the archaeologist:

He insists that many of the Spanish missionary’s critics are confusing the impact of Spanish colonizing and missionary activity on the native communities with what happened after California became a US territory in 1848."A decimation of the Native American population,” Mendoza said, occurred “in the period after 1850; Serra had no connection to that phenomenon. Those who criticize Serra the most tend to conflate the American period with that of the missionaries."

Whether Cruxnow, as a news outlet, should have gone totally to the Catholic side is another question.

Historian Steven Hackel sounds less benign in the Religion News Service account. RNS has Hackel saying Serra waged an "aggressive" campaign to found Franciscan-style missions. It also adds numbers from Hackel:

Missionary rivalry aside, it’s the high death rate among the mission inhabitants for which Serra is most controversial. Serra died in 1784 at age 70, and the system he helped create saw around 80,000 Native Americans baptized in the missions between 1769 and the mid-1830s. By the latter period, around 60,000 of those had died, Hackel said.“Even though he never killed anyone and would never have promoted that, there’s no question that the system that Serra creates is culturally and biologically lethal to native peoples,” he added.

RNS -- which, has the longest of the four stories here, at 800+ words -- also quotes Robert Andrade, a La Jolla Indian and director of the Los Angeles Native American Indian Commission. Andrade, also an AP source, calls Serra's planned canonization "nothing more than a PR move by the Catholic Church to entice more people to become Catholic." He calls instead for the Catholic Church to apologize to Native Americans.

On the other hand, RNS gets some nuance from historian Tracy Neal Leavelle at Creighton University:

“There certainly was oppression and coercion — the missions didn’t work without native labor — but native peoples and communities also figured out how to make the missions work for them,” he said.Native Americans were able to use the missions as “backup” when facing the pressures of seasonal cycles of subsistence, Leavelle said. Their communities were nonetheless decimated by disease due to the missions, with Serra becoming “a symbol of that traumatic period.”

None of this is to deny mainstream media the right to look critically at Serra's life. When the Catholic Church praises the good he did for Native Americans, non-Catholics can legitimately ask how good it really was.  But they need a balanced look, neither rushing to judge nor rushing to whitewash.

Photo: Stained glass window of Friar Junipero Serra in the Immaculate Conception Church, Old San Diego, Calif. Image via Shutterstock.

Categories: Main

Seattle Times scores a winner in piece on Christian health-share ministries

Monday, May 4, 2015

There aren’t many religion writers in the Pacific Northwest these days and that's a shame.

For example, The Seattle Times apparently hasn’t had one since Janet Tu left the beat several years ago. If something breaks like last year’s ouster of Mark Driscoll -- then-pastor of Mars Hill, Seattle’s largest church at the time -- the newsroom has to pull reporters from other beats to cover it.

So it was a surprise to see this story leading their web site Sunday on Medi-Share and two other Christian “health-sharing ministries” that act quasi-health insurers for lots of Washington state residents.

When Melissa Mira suffered sudden heart failure at the end of her second pregnancy last year, she worried first about her health and her baby -- then about the more than $200,000 in medical bills that began rolling in.“Your world is just crashing down around you and you wonder: ‘How is this going to be covered?’ ” recalled Mira, 30, who spent more than a month away from her Tacoma home, hospitalized at the University of Washington Medical Center.For Mira and her family, the answer came not through traditional health insurance, but through faith that fellow Christians would step forward to pay the bills.The Miras -- including daughter Jael, 4, and baby Sienna Rain, now a healthy 9-month-old -- are among the growing numbers of people looking to “health care-sharing ministries” across the U.S. At last count, there were more than 10,000 members in Washington state and nearly 400,000 nationwide, individuals and families whose medical costs are taken care of entirely through the organized goodwill -- and monthly payments or “shares” -- of like-minded religious followers.

The writer is the newspaper’s health reporter and the tone is informative and respectful. It’s kind of sad when it’s unusual to find a piece in the secular media about religious practices that have no snark attached.

This article is one of the exceptions. It goes on to say:

Members are technically considered self-pay patients; when they visit doctors or hospitals, they’re classified as not having health insurance. Instead of paying insurance premiums, they pay voluntary “shares” of $300 to $400 a month per family, either directly to other members or to plan organizers who match the money with patient needs.For Veronika and Michael Boos, of Seattle, who own a small home-brewery-supply business and have three young children, joining Samaritan was more affordable than anything they found on the Washington state health-benefit exchange.“You’re talking $1,000 a month on the exchange, if you want decent coverage,” said Veronika Boos, 31, who gave birth to their youngest child, Desmond, in February. The family belongs to Cross & Crown Church in Ballard.

Cross & Crown, by the way, is the new name for what once was Mars Hill’s central church until a few months ago. I too have had to buy my insurance on the exchange and the Boos are right about the tremendous costs. So it's news when 10,000-plus people have found an alternate way around this.

The article adds that for uncovered costs (these faith plans don’t do pre-existing conditions), people can post their stories on a “prayer page” and people will send them checks to help out. It’s been my experience that if I show up at a doctor’s office with no insurance, I’ll get no further unless I pay in advance. I’m curious what these Christians do in that situation.

The article does talk about the downside of these plans, such as lawsuits filed by some of the members who claim their care was not paid for. There’s an interesting anecdote about the Washington state insurance commissioner trying to outlaw these groups and seeing the state legislature pass a law opposing his efforts. There are 29 states in which these health-sharing ministries are protected. That's a solid hook for follow-up reporting by journalists in many different markets.

The article concludes with information that gives the impression that these believers are at the least savvy consumers trying, like everyone else, to figure their way around high health care costs. It is the kind of respectful coverage I tend to see given to minority religious groups in the nation's media but not so much to Protestant evangelicals or conservative Catholics.

Now if the Times would only make religion a full-time beat ...

Categories: Main

Sunday prayers and praise for saints who stood their ground on Baltimore front lines

Monday, May 4, 2015

I ended my "Crossroads" podcast post this weekend with a bit of a challenge to the editors who produce the newspaper that (for a few more weeks) lands in my front yard here next to the Baltimore beltway.

To be precise, I said: "Tomorrow morning -- the Monday following the Sunday sermons about the riots -- I will go to my front yard, pick up the newspaper, open it and look for the religion ghosts. Will the Sun (or anyone else, for that matter) take the time to cover any of these sermons, these prayer rites, these holy moments in the wake of the riots? We will see."

Now, I am sure that my challenge had little or nothing to do with what showed up in the newspaper today (although there is at least one GetReligion reader in the newsroom). However, I am happy to say that The Baltimore Sun team sent several reporters out into the city's pews and came back with an A1 story that noted the political overtones, of course, but stressed basic issues of prayer, worship and faith.

The logical church -- Fulton Baptist Church -- served as the door into the story and then as the exit door as well. This 111-year-old sanctuary has burned in the past and it almost burned again, since it was doors away from the CVS store torched by looters with the whole world watching. Here's the point where the opening anecdote flows into -- of course -- a reference to the political context.

"This church is at ground zero," the church's head pastor, the Rev. Julian Rivera, roared, his voice soaring as the congregation cheered. "If the devil had his way, we wouldn't be here today!"How grateful we are that God spared our church."It was one of several worship services of note to be held in Baltimore on Sunday, a day Gov. Larry Hogan declared "a day of peace and prayer."Hogan joined about 250 people at St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in Sandtown-Winchester, where Archbishop William E. Lori presided, and later in the day, Rep. Elijah Cummings addressed an afternoon service at Southern Baptist Church in East Baltimore.Hogan mentioned several of the "overarching" societal problems the Gray case brought into the open. "But today we're not going to solve that," he said. "Today, we're about having peace in the city."

Now, the governor's reference to "overarching" societal problems raises an interesting question, for me, a hint at a missed opportunity.

The emphasis on this story is, as it should be, the atmosphere of relief and thanksgiving in the city's sanctuaries (although the Sun editors do not appear to have have known that there was an attempt to have litanies in all churches on this day). However, as is so often the case, this story includes little or nothing about the actual religious content -- the thematic links that pastors found between biblical texts and the riots -- of these sermons.

As always, it's important for reporters to realize that worship services of this kind contain content that is often relevant to the news. The fact that it's biblical content, in many cases, only makes it more important to the people present at these events.

The key: Was the governor alone in talking about some of the moral and cultural ghosts in these events? What were some of the issues that were discussed by Hogan and, perhaps, some of the city's clergy? Absent fathers? Tension with police, both black and white? Broken families? Black-on-black violence? Drugs?

These kinds of details matter, especially in the current atmosphere in this city and state.

However, let's salute the reporter who found the anecdote that ended this piece. It's hard to believe that this has not been in the newspaper already. Perhaps I missed it in the barrage.

This is how you want to end a story, folks, with the preacher saluting a hero on the front lines.

... Finally, he told the story of what really happened Monday as Fulton's fate hung in the balance.A deacon at a sister church, 41-year-old Kevin Wilder, had followed a hunch to come to the area, Rivera said. On arriving, he saw the angry crowd burn the CVS, ransack the other stores and head toward Fulton.Wilder ran over, Rivera said, stood at the door and told them to hold their fire.The looters paused a moment and moved on.The pastor called Wilder, a slender, bespectacled man, to the front and embraced him as the congregation cheered. When the roars died down, Wilder insisted he's no hero."It was nothing but God almighty," he said.

It's a cliche, but I don't care. And all the people said?

Amen.

Categories: Main

Basic facts crucial on shooting outside Texas contest for cartoons depicting Muhammad

Monday, May 4, 2015

Violence tied to a contest for images depicting Islam's Prophet Muhammad is making headlines this morning:

Two gunmen killed outside Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas http://t.co/XMgvvY40q6 pic.twitter.com/QHrqadBTMy

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

1 officer, 2 suspects shot outside contest for cartoon depictions of Prophet Muhammad in Dallas, officer says http://t.co/oIBUz40kIj

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

Follow @edlavaCNN as he reports on the #garlandshooting. See the latest from @CNN here: http://t.co/lhgidNUcMa pic.twitter.com/vR7hSI1bLS

— Early Start (@EarlyStart) May 4, 2015

Update: 2 gunmen at 'Muhammad Art Exhibit' fatally shot by Garland police after wounding Garland ISD officer http://t.co/cwqmtvfMwf

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) May 4, 2015

2 suspects are dead after a shooting outside a Muhammad cartoon exhibit in Texas http://t.co/5nAj8Gk1h4 (Photo: epa) pic.twitter.com/SRbx5R3eCe

— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) May 4, 2015

The latest news from The Associated Press:

GARLAND, Texas (AP) — Two gunmen were killed Sunday after opening fire on a security officer outside a provocative contest for cartoon depictions of Prophet Muhammad in Texas and a bomb squad was called in to search their vehicle as a precaution, authorities said.The men drove up to the Curtis Culwell Center in the Dallas suburb of Garland as the contest was scheduled to end and began shooting at a security officer, the City of Garland said in a statement. Garland police officers returned fire, killing the men."Because of the situation of what was going on today and the history of what we've been told has happened at other events like this, we are considering their car (is) possibly containing a bomb," Officer Joe Harn, a spokesman for the Garland Police Department, said at a news conference.Police are not aware of any ongoing threat and had not received any credible threats before the event, Harn said.Harn said it was not immediately clear whether the shooting was connected to the event inside, a contest hosted by the New York-based American Freedom Defense Initiative that would award $10,000 for the best cartoon depicting the Prophet Muhammad.Such drawings are deemed insulting to many followers of Islam and have sparked violence around the world. According to mainstream Islamic tradition, any physical depiction of the Prophet Muhammad — even a respectful one — is considered blasphemous.

The Dallas Morning News reports:

Before the shooting, the scene was unremarkable outside the Culwell Center, except for the thick security that included Garland police, school district security and private guards.“We were expecting protests outside the building,” (event attendee Stephen) Perkins said.But Alia Salem, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations Dallas-Fort Worth, said she and other Muslims had wanted nothing to do with the event.“We were actively ignoring and encouraging the community to ignore it,” she said. “We did not want to be the bearers of any kind of incitement.”Imam Zia Sheikh of the Irving Islamic Center wrote online that though he was waiting to see how the facts unfold, “as of now condemning any act of terror. No justification whatsoever.”“Seems like a lone wolf type of attack. Just what we didn’t want,” he wrote.

As this story develops, presenting basic facts will be crucial for media coverage.

Among the key questions that will be important for reporters to address:

• • •

1. What do Muslims believe concerning artistic depictions of Muhammad?

This is a question that CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke addressed after the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris back in January:

Not all Muslims are insulted by depictions of Prophet Mohammed, but many are. Here's why: http://t.co/cens0GW4xQ http://t.co/D3B7CgfN1F

— CNN Religion (@CNNbelief) January 7, 2015

Already today, CNN has updated Burke's previous report, and it's worth a read.

• • •

2. Who were the gunmen who opened fire, and what ties, if any, do they have to a terrorist group?

ABC News is reporting that a suspect in the Texas attack was previously the subject of a terror investigation:

Arizona man, previously subject of a terror investigation, is suspect in Texas attack, FBI official tells @ABC News: http://t.co/YvPGcXkDDy

— ABC News (@ABC) May 4, 2015

From ABC:

One of the suspects in the shooting in Garland, Texas, late Sunday has been identified as Elton Simpson, an Arizona man who was previously the subject of a terror investigation, according to a senior FBI official.Overnight and today FBI agents and a bomb squad were at Simpson's home in an apartment complex in north Phoenix where a robot is believed to be conducting an initial search of the apartment.Officials believe Simpson is the person who sent out several Twitter messages prior to the attack on Sunday, in the last one using the hashtag #TexasAttack about half an hour before the shooting.

• • •

3. What is the American Freedom Defense Initiative?

The Wall Street Journal provides this background:

The American Freedom Defense Initiative describes itself as an activist human-rights organization that fights Islamic extremism. It may be best known for being active in a 2010 fight against the construction of a mosque and Islamic cultural center near the site of the former World Trade Center.Some critics have characterized the group as needlessly provocative, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which lists it as an “active anti-Muslim” extremist group. The group has launched controversial ad campaigns around the country that it says are aimed at raising awareness of the threat of jihad.Recently, the group has been embroiled in controversy with New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Last year, the MTA refused to run an ad by the group, citing security concerns. That ad attempted parody: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah,” and attributed the line to “Hamas MTV.” Beneath the quotation, the ad read: “That’s His Jihad. What’s yours?”In April, a federal judge in Manhattan sided with the group and ruled that the ad qualified as constitutionally protected speech. But the board of the MTA voted in April to ban political and other potentially controversial noncommercial ads on buses and trains.

Like the Journal, a number of other news organizations are citing the Southern Poverty Law Center's classification of the American Freedom Defense Initiative as an extremist group.

However, as GetReligion has noted previously, the Southern Poverty Law Center itself has drawn complaints.

In a letter last year, the leaders of 15 conservative and/or Christian groups — such as the Family Research Council, the Traditional Values Coalition and the Alliance Defending Freedom — argued that the Southern Poverty Law Center has labeled many organizations as hate groups because "they are ardent defenders of marriage and sexuality as defined by the Christian and Hebrew Bible." The letter also accused the SPLC of "stalking and bullying" its political opponents.

Here at GetReligion, we'll provide more analysis as the Texas story develops.

If you see coverage worth noting — good or bad — please leave a comment or tweet us at @getreligion.

Categories: Main

Dear journalists lingering in Baltimore: There's more to black church than politics

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Toward the end of this week, clergy from the whole Baltimore area gathered to pray for peace in our city and for its future.

I don't know that this happened because of anything that I read in the news. I know it because my own parish's Divine Liturgy this morning ended with an Easter-season litany of prayers, with a heavy emphasis on the Resurrection, that grew out of that meeting.

So did all churches in greater Baltimore say the following words today?

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.

Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.

So why do I bring this up? This week's "Crossroads" podcast, as you might expect focused on the many, many religion ghosts that hovered over the events here in a very troubled Charm City. Click here to tun that in.

As our own Jim Davis noted, in a post about New York Times coverage, it really was impossible to witness the front-line events here in Baltimore without seeing the role that pastors, priests and others played.

But seeing a very familiar set of urban clergy in action is not, I argued in my conversation with host Todd Wilken, is not automatically the same thing as being sensitive to what is happening here, in terms of the broader religious angles in this story.

As I have stressed many times, in print and in podcasts, its important for news consumers to understand the degree to which most journalists view life primarily through the lens of politics and even partisan, horse-race politics. This can even happen when covering an institution like the African-American church, in part because -- true enough -- of the prominent role that black clergy have historically played in politics and community life.

But is there more to black church life than politics? Of course there is. Still, what's your reaction when you read through the top of this A1 political report (according to the online filing system) from today's Baltimore Sun?

Unrest in Baltimore put on display the widely different leadership styles that Gov. Larry Hogan and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake brought to a crisis that could come to define their administrations.As Hogan toured inner-city neighborhoods Thursday, glad-handing with residents who likely never voted for him, Baltimore's mayor was cloistered in a private meeting with supporters.All week, the new Republican governor calmly told Marylanders he would deploy all necessary resources to restore order in Baltimore after the death of Freddie Gray in police custody sparked demonstrations. The veteran Democratic mayor found herself on the defensive, trying to walk back an awkward comment about the mayhem and defending her record."Some folks have had the impression that the mayor has been indifferent and aloof and the governor has been more active, coming in to save Baltimore from its inclination to implode," said the Rev. Todd Yeary of Douglas Memorial Community Church in West Baltimore, Rawlings-Blake's pastor.

And right after that quote from one of the city's high-profile, politically active pastors there was this quote:

"Perception, unfortunately, can be reality," said the Rev. Delman Coates, an influential pastor from Prince George's County who ran for lieutenant governor last year. "You can argue with the reality, but in this media-driven, technology-driven environment, perception becomes reality."

Let's see. We have two clergy there and the perspective is political and political, with a heavy undertow of Republican vs. Democrat, white male vs. black female tension in there, as well.

Was this political presence, on the part of clergy, part of the story this week? Of course it was.

Was this the only role that religious faith played in Baltimore this week or even the dominant one? Of course not. However, how would readers know the answer to that question, simply by watching CNN and reading the newspapers? At some point, it's hard to see anything other than politics, when that is what keeps ending up in print. Trust me, the black church is way more complex than what we are seeing in the newspapers.

Tomorrow morning -- the Monday following the Sunday sermons about the riots -- I will go to my front yard, pick up the newspaper, open it and look for the religion ghosts. Will the Sun (or anyone else, for that matter) take the time to cover any of these sermons, these prayer rites, these holy moments in the wake of the riots?

We will see.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Vancouver Sun's Douglas Todd channels religion beat into nones, spirituality and migration

Saturday, May 2, 2015

When you’re Canada’s top religion writer and you’ve been on the beat for umpteen years and you want to take religion reporting in one of the continent’s most beautiful cities in a new direction, what do you do?

You become a “spirituality and diversity columnist.”

You start a blog called “The Search” that is described thusly: “Douglas Todd delves into topics we’re taught to avoid: religion, ethnicity, politics, sex and ethics.”

The Vancouver Sun’s erstwhile religion writer has showed up at many a Religion Newswriters Association meeting to spirit off some top award for his stylish prose chronicling the spiritual side of British Columbia’s largest city. In recent years, his work has taken an unusual turn because of the multifaith direction of this metropolis sounded by water and mountains. A May 8, 2013, article on the city explains more:

Metro Vancouver and the rest of B.C. break a lot of records when it comes to religion and the lack thereof.The West Coast is a place of extremes in regards to Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists and the religiously unaffiliated, according to a major 2011 survey by Statistics Canada.New data released Wednesday suggests pluralistic B.C. is traveling in several religious directions at once. Many residents are becoming more devout following a great variety of world faiths. But other residents are endorsing secular world views and drifting into private spirituality.This region of 2.3 million people now has the fewest inhabitants of any major Canadian metropolitan area who call themselves Christian, according to the National Household Survey, which is Statistics Canada’s first major measurement of national religiosity since 2001.Only 41 per cent of Metro residents are Christian, compared to a national average of 67 per cent. B.C. has the fewest Christians on average of any province or territory.Even while the city has grown in population, the total number of Christians in Metro has actually dropped by four per cent in the past decade, to 950,000.

Then, you knew this was coming, there is the trend that has received oceans of ink in the past three years. Can you say Pew Forum and the "nones"?

More than 41 per cent of Metro Vancouver residents, or 945,000 people, told Statistics Canada they have no religion.That is a far higher proportion than in any other major city in Canada -- or, for that matter, North America…However, there is another group that makes Metro Vancouver stand out -- its Sikh population, which is growing faster than any other. The total Sikh population of Metro Vancouver has mushroomed by almost 60 per cent since 2001.Among the 455,000 Sikhs in Canada, 44 per cent live in B.C. Metro Vancouver alone has 156,000 Sikhs, comprising 6.8 per cent of the city’s population. B.C. is the only province in Canada, and one of the few jurisdictions in the world, in which Sikhism can claim the status of being the second largest religion.

The Sikh presence was something I saw on my drive to Alaska last summer via the Alaska-Canadian (AlCan) Highway. I was zooming through Prince George, a city in the middle of BC, when I saw a gurdwara, which is a Sikh temple. One doesn’t drive by those every day, so I swung around the Subaru, pulled over and snapped the photo you see with this article. (Sikhs began flowing into western Canada in the early 20th century to work the lumber camps, saw mills, railroad construction, salmon canneries, fruit orchards and cattle farms).

The article goes on to say how Buddhists, Muslims and other religions are growing in Vancouver, thanks to immigration mostly from Asia. Christians make up 47 percent of recent immigrants, followed by those with no affiliation (20 percent), followed by increasing amounts of Eastern religions.

How do you cover this salad bowl of faiths? When I emailed Doug about this, he said his beat also includes migration, psychology, philosophy and men’s issues. He added that his perception of the region was much affected by research for his 2008 book Cascadia: The Elusive Utopia, about the irreligious-but-spiritual Pacific Northwest. He got more interested in writing about its more secular residents.

When I asked him about meat-and-potatoes religion coverage -- which Vancouver undeniably still has -- he said no one’s doing that sort of coverage at the Sun anymore. Nor are they in many papers across Canada, which experienced many of the same downsizing as did their U.S. counterparts.

That’s the one part of this narrative that's sad. It’s fine for Doug’s editors to re-configure his beat to go after the fast-growing “nones” demographic, but then not to have anyone cover the business of religion in this large city? Doug gets a lot of material into his blog but would the Sun have resassigned the paper’s sole business or sports reporter with no one to take up the slack? I’m guessing his editors figured that the meat-and-potatoes stuff was material the public -- or at least themselves -- no longer cared about and thought it was time to put one of their most talented writers on a beat that better reflected the current zeitgeist.

He still does do articles for the print edition, many of which come out on Saturdays. His most recent blogs on Argentina talk about the city where Pope Francis was born and portray Latin America’s top religion reporters. He’s also recently blogged on a female Canadian/Pakistani blogger who opposes niqabs and how the United Church of Canada fears it’s too white.

It's the kind of writing many beat religion reporters wish they  had the time to do. His evolution reminds me of how Krista Tippett's "Speaking of Faith" radio show morphed into the vaguer "On Being" in 2013.  The show began tackling "questions at the center of human life" and, it says on its site, "We pursue wisdom and moral imagination as much as knowledge; we esteem nuance and poetry as much as fact." All very well and good, but is it still journalism?

Doug Todd won't be anywhere near as woo-woo as Krista but his new emphases say a lot about how the religion beat is shifting. As the culture has avoided dogma and certainty, the beat has morphed from religion, "faith and values" and "beliefs" to spirituality and questions. At some point the call to worship becomes a mirror and what was once about people of God becomes only about us.

PHOTO: From Shutterstock

Categories: Main

An atheistic example of mainstream press fondness for single-sourcing

Friday, May 1, 2015

Opinions expressed by individual writers and talkers are a legitimate aspect of journalism.

But.

But these days newspapers, TV news and allegedly journalistic Web sites are all tempted to overdo such single-sourcing. Mainly that’s because you have to pay a salary and benefits to a seasoned staff journalist so it’s cheaper to throw a few bucks at a freelance. As the saying in the business goes, the operative adjective is “free.”

Like science or medicine, religion is a highly complex news beat that suffers when a news organization lacks an experienced specialist. For example, the Wall Street Journal is pursuing an ambitious effort to expand general coverage beyond its business ghetto. But with religion, it typically limits matters to Friday op-ed pieces written by interested parties. They’re often worth a look but cannot match analysis by a non-partisan journalist carefully assessing various sides of a question.

Another sort of WSJ example occurred with the  April 27 special section titled “The Future Issue.” The religion aspect, not treated in the print package, was relegated to the online postings. The paper had noted Tufts University atheist Daniel Dennett tell us “Why the Future of Religion is Bleak,” while Vanderbilt Divinity dean Emilie Townes separately contended that “The Future of Religion is Ascendant.”

Problem was, the two profs often talked past each other and made some assertions a newswriter would challenge. Moreover, Townes, a professor of womanist ethics, typifies the ardent religious left, so it would have been useful to also hear from a religious conservative. To competently assess religion’s long-term prospects, why not have  a newswriter interview Dennett, Townes, some conservative, and key experts in sociology? What's wrong with reporting?

The Religion Guy here focuses on Dennett’s atheistic gospel. He wants news consumers to know that if current trends continue “religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West,” with mere “pockets” of believers surviving. The only hope for global faith would be a World War III over water or oil, the collapse of the Internet and other communications, or some other “unimagined catastrophe” that will foster “misery and fear, the soil in which religion flourishes best.”

Otherwise the “recent rapid growth of mutual knowledge” will eviscerate faith. It seems religious groups have the power to “control” what their members know, which was certainly true till printing became widespread, say circa  A.D. 1516.  Moreover, there will be increasing “exposure of all the antique falsehoods of religious doctrine” because -- Get Religion readers may have somehow missed this -- the “pro-religion bias in the media is crumbling.” Apparently Dr. Dennett doesn’t get out much.

“Religion has been waning in influence for several centuries,” he contends, and “especially in Europe and North America.”

It’s worth analyzing the places in the West where that isn’t true. But let’s look globally. With a quick Internet search any reporter would have found Pew Research’s new projections to 2050. Yes, non-affiliation with organized religion is predicted to increase among Americans,  from 16.4 percent to 25.6 percent. But “the religiously unaffiliated population is projected to shrink as a percentage of the global population.” (Click here for that Pew report.)

If religion rises and falls, does that result  entirely from “misery and fear” in Latin America, Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe? Or is something missing? Dennett could have cited World Christian Encyclopedia data about the massive increase in the “non-religious” category, from 0.2 percent of humanity in 1900 to 16.9 percent in 1985.

Could that just possibly reflect Communism’s past and present zeal to imprison or kill religious leaders, force atheistic propaganda, shackle church activities and blatantly discriminate against believers? Dennett offers not a phrase about that factor.

The bottom line: No competent journalist -- as opposed to a preacher or propagandist -- would make such an amateurish interpretive mistake.

Categories: Main

Dallas Morning News revisits Ebola crisis and Baptist church's embrace of victim's fiancée

Friday, May 1, 2015

I should love this story.

Really, I should. So why don't I?

That's what I'm trying to figure out as I consider my reaction to this 1,600-word Dallas Morning News takeout:

In response to Dallas’ Ebola crisis, church found its own redemption http://t.co/yjRkmpAIiB pic.twitter.com/BjoQzNXsqI

— Dallas Morning News (@dallasnews) April 26, 2015

The lede sets the scene:

Recently, between Palm Sunday services, Pastor George Mason weaved confidently and quickly through the halls of Wilshire Baptist Church. He greeted everyone with his trademark smile, passing some with a handshake, others with a pat on the shoulder.“Good morning!” “What’s your good news today?” “Hello!”It was a busy time, but there was an extra layer of complication: One of his church’s members, Louise Troh, was preparing to release My Spirit Took You In, a memoir to be published Tuesday. The book details her relationship with fiancé Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the Ebola virus in Dallas last fall.Now, yet again, cameras were coming into his sanctuary. Reporters were coming with empty notebooks and lots of questions.Troh had started to open up to interviews, but the majority of the press wrangling went to the pastor and Christine Wicker, a former religion reporter for The Dallas Morning News and co-author of Troh’s memoir.Since the Ebola virus struck Dallas last September, Mason has balanced the roles of media liaison, pastor, advocate and more. He’s sat for interviews on CNN. He’s fought to find Troh and her family a place to live away from the cameras. He’s sheltered them, giving them time and space to grieve, away from the news media.“This was a matter of ordinary care in the midst of extraordinary times,” Mason said. “The church has been willing to address significant matters culturally.”

Here's what should (and does) impress me about this piece: It's an in-depth religion story tied to major news. It's an easy read with a conversational tone. It's respectful, not condescending, of the faith expressed by the main characters.

Moreover, the "church found its own redemption" hook impresses me as a terrific peg:

Last fall was not the first time the church has had a run-in with a much feared and deadly virus.In the early 1980s, a couple and their two sons came to Wilshire. Because of a blood transfusion, the mother and sons were diagnosed with HIV. Mason said the church reached out superficially but refused to allow the older son to attend Sunday school with the other children.“It was a painful moment in our church’s history,” Mason said. “I don’t think we did it wrong the last time, but we didn’t get it right.”During last year’s Ebola crisis, Mason thought of that moment 30 years ago. He said the congregation had a keen sense that this time, they’d act with caring responsibility instead of fear.“Love moves toward people. Fear moves away,” Mason told his congregation during those weeks of uncertainty. “We did everything we could to move toward.”

But still, a nagging feeling — something that just didn't sit right — gnawed at me after I finished reading the story. And after I read it again. And again.

Part of my concern, I think, is that the story — despite its length — seems a little shallow. There's not a lot of meat to go along with the overarching storyline that a church that did not behave in a Christian way three decades ago did this time.

Plus, the story never explains whether the pastor remembering how the church reacted last time was there then. Mason's bio on the church website indicates that he has been senior pastor since 1989 but doesn't say whether he was on the Wilshire staff prior to that. If he wasn't on staff, how does he know what happened?

Beyond that, my natural journalistic skepticism makes me wish for more concrete facts on the previous situation and more firsthand recollections from those who remember that situation. Was anything written in the church bulletin or newsletter back then that could be cited? Were there any mainstream media reports at the time? Do longtime members remember the story the same way the pastor tells it?

The story devotes a lot of ink to explaining the church's media relations prowess. To some extent, the fluffy nature of the Morning News report seems to underscore that fact.

Then again, maybe I'm picking at nits that really aren't there. If so, please forgive me.

I should love this story.

Really, I should.

Categories: Main

Church on the street: New York Times shows ministers trying to calm Baltimore

Friday, May 1, 2015

Church leaders have popped in and out of coverage of the current riots in Baltimore. The New York Times, however, spotlights their brave -- though inconclusive as yet -- efforts to keep a lid on the violence.

The 1,100-word story visits three churches -- Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, nondenominational -- and talks to ministers as well. One of them even claims to be an early member of the Black Guerrilla Family, one of the three gangs -- the others are the Crips and Bloods -- blamed for the violence in the wake of the death of Freddie Gray.

The Times quotes a wide range of people, among them a gang member and a local politician. We hear also from the much-quoted Rev. Jamal Bryant on the need to show the world the more peaceful side of Baltimore. They walk the streets to calm crowds and urge them to keep the curfew. A teacher serves snacks in a church basement, while getting children to talk out their feelings about the rioting.  And a pastor brings rival Bloods and Crips into his office to complain of problems and suggest solutions.

Just to have the gangsters sitting down, when they have long shed each other's blood nationwide, must be a major victory in itself. As the story says:

But in a city abuzz with public speeches, meetings and demonstrations, perhaps nothing was more surprising than the outreach to gangs, and some gang members’ positive response. Gang fights accounted for some of violence in a city that recorded 211 homicides last year. Gangs run some of the thriving drug trade, and the Black Guerrilla Family was accused by prosecutors of a virtual takeover of the city’s jail, leading to corruption charges against many correctional officers. And earlier this week, the police warned that the Crips and Bloods were uniting to plan attacks on officers, though members of both gangs have denied any such plans.That history warranted skepticism about a lasting turnaround by gang members, and there was plenty. But ministers who were involved in the discussions said the turmoil offers an opening that should not go to waste.

"Part of the goal is political" for the activism, the story reports: an attempt to refocus attention away from the street crimes and back onto police conduct. The Times also quotes a minister saying bluntly that he wanted to help the city's prosecutor, Marilyn Mosby, who has promised to address the police issue.

But what other goals have been set? Simple calm? Spiritual peace? Reconciliation? The story meanders through other facets but doesn't spell them out as strongly.

I'd also like to know how much the ministers may be coordinating with each other. CNN quotes Jamal Bryant saying that the Nation of Islam was helping Christians form lines across city streets in an effort to contain the rioting.  Would have been interesting to get an interview with the local Nation leader.

The Times doesn't take a blue-sky approach; it admits that success for these street chaplains has been spotty:

Baltimore’s self-appointed peacekeepers were not successful in the initial hours of unrest, when rioters looted stores, burned buildings and injured more than a dozen police officers, some of them seriously. But in the following days, they were more effective in restraining violence than clergy members and civil rights leaders in Ferguson, who had troubles cohering in the first few days and struggled to calm violent demonstrators.

Pictures as well as words tell the story in this account. An evocative photo essay shows nine residents -- mostly black, various ages -- who gathered by that CVS drugstore that was looted. They give various thoughts on the violence:

* "I’m shocked. I lived here all my life. The police stood in a line and let them loot the CVS."

* "I’m a medical student, and we have been organizing to get people out here for medical coverage in case something happens."

* "I’m here to advocate for my students’ rights. I teach at the Baltimore Design School."

* "This my neighborhood. They tore our neighborhood up."

Refreshingly, the Times also quotes one of the volunteer street chaplains: "We’ve come to this corner to stop and pray for this city. We need power beyond us to help, and we believe that only God can do this."

At a time when so many people are pointing fingers and guns alike, clasping hands to pray instead sounds like a great alternative. Kudos to the Times for presenting this other side of the news.

Categories: Main

Yes, it's often dangerous for reporters to dance with polls

Friday, May 1, 2015

Be wary. Be very wary when reporting survey results, those microwave-ready story hooks -- perfect for slow news days -- that purport to provide objective data revealing, well, sometimes nothing. That goes double for polls that claim to measure religious beliefs and practices.

That's because all but the very best crafted ones fail to get anywhere close to the subtleties that turn generalized numbers into accurate snapshots of how beliefs and practices truly play out in individual lives.

Case in point: A recent WIN/Gallup International survey claiming to measure religious belief around the world. One of the nations surveyed was Israel, where religion is as politicized as it is anywhere, making it particularly difficult to label individual religious choices.

Take, for example, my Israeli-born wife's cousin, Ayala. She's a leader in her Jerusalem synagogue but would probably physically recoil if you called her religious because of the divisive social and political connotations the term carries in Israel.

Ayala speaks contemptuously of those theologically ultra-Orthodox Israeli Jews who consider themselves the only true practitioners of Judaism in Israel. Nor does she speak well of the politically right wing Orthodox Zionist hardliners who are the backbone of the West Bank settler movement.

Want to get into a sure fire argument in Israel? Just broach the subject of the thin divide (by U.S. standards, at least) between religion and state there. Here's a recent New York Times story on public bus service on the Sabbath that provides useful background.

We'll get back to Ayala and her husband Zvi. But first let's explore the WIN/Gallup poll a bit.

Mercifully, my Web search turned up hardly any coverage in English-language media of the survey's findings (.pdf here). (Read the disclaimer at the bottom of the link; WIN/Gallup International is distinct from what most would normally regard as an authoritative Gallup poll.)
I say mercifully because the survey appears deeply flawed. A shade less than 64,000 individuals in just 65 nations -- hardly global when the world has more than 190 fully independent nations -- were asked whether they are "either not religious or convinced atheists," regardless of whether or not they attend "a place of worship."

However, the poll did receive news coverage in Israel, probably because it claimed that 65 percent of Israelis said they are not religious or are "convinced" atheists, while just 30 percent said they were religious. Imagine that. The Holy Land -- where Judaism, Islam and Christianity have and still do compete fiercely for influence and real estate -- is majority secular. 

But hold on there. The survey is devoid of any follow up questions designed to dig deeper into what religious and non-religious means to those polled. Moreover, it does not identify whether those questioned were Jews, Muslims, Christians or something else. A casual reader might assume Israelis means Jews. They would be wrong because about 20 percent of Israel's population is Arab. Most are Muslim, but a goodly number are Christian.

Unfortunately, the Jerusalem Post, Israel's center-right English daily (except for Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath), made that assumption. Here's the entire Post article. And here's a chunk of it that I find most pertinent.

WIN/Gallup International’s findings seem to directly contradict a 2009 study by the Israel Democracy Institute which found that while religious observance in Israel declined in the decade following the influx of Soviet immigrants after the end of the Cold War, it has since risen and “to a great extent” there was actually an increase in those who observe Jewish traditions.More than 60% of respondents in the IDI’s study indicated that “tradition is ‘very important’ or ‘fairly important’ in their choice of a spouse,” while 80% affirmed their belief in God, either wholeheartedly or with occasional doubts.Moreover, 67% answered that they believe that Jews are the “chosen people” while 65% deemed the Torah and its commandments to be God-given.Ninety percent celebrate the Passover Seder, 67% are careful not to eat hametz (leaven) during Passover, 68% fast on Yom Kippur and 36% listen to the megila (the Book of Esther) on Purim. A majority of respondents (85%) said it is “important to celebrate Jewish festivals in the traditional manner."

So what does it mean to be a non-religious Israeli Jew when 80 percent say they believe in God all or most of the time, but far fewer say they adhere closely to Judaism's rabbinically instituted, traditional religious laws known collectively in Hebrew as Halacha?

Let's return to Ayala and Zvi to help us understand the complexity involved in answering that question, regardless of what a simple yes-or-no survey claims to reveal.

Ayala, a retired social worker, comes from a secular German Jewish background, while Zvi, a journalist (he's the dean of the Knesset, or parliament, press corps) comes from an Iraqi Jewish family that has lived for many generations in what is now Israel. Together, they revived a Masorti (the Israeli term for what Americans call Conservative Judaism) synagogue in Jerusalem. Zvi, the more biblically learned of the two, general presents a talk on the weekly Torah portion to the small congregation. At home, Ayala lights the sabbath candles, and Zvi says the prayers over the challah bread and wine. More often than not, their Friday night dinners are family gatherings.

But the meal they eat is not kosher, and generally that's also the case for the restaurants they frequent. They wouldn't use the term, but I think of them as closer to being what American Jews know as Reconstructionist Judaism, the newest and smallest branch of organized North American Judaism. Reconstructionists value tradition and Jewish culture, but need not believe in the traditional Jewish concept of God or adhere to Halacha in all its fullness.

So are they religious or not? I'd say they qualify. They're certainly not traditionally religious -- not in practice, anyway -- but there are millions of Israeli Jews like them. They may go to synagogue on Saturday mornings but then to a stadium football (soccer to us) match in the afternoon. They may eat non-kosher food and prefer the beach over synagogue, but they wouldn't think of eating leavened bread during Passover.

Ayala and Zvi are but one example of Israeli Jewish religious diversity. Likewise, Israel is just one example of how religious belief and practice are far more personalized than surveys usually convey. Remember that when generalizing about a religious community, any community in any nation -- no matter what a survey tells you.

Categories: Main

Will Justice Kennedy go against gay rights? The Los Angeles Times sure hopes not

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Much of this week’s news is the Supremes and gay marriage, so what could be a better introduction than a piece on the man who will probably be the swing vote in this great debate?

We are, of course, talking about Justice Anthony M. Kennedy who was profiled Monday in the Los Angeles Times, the day before oral arguments. The Times is a natural medium to look at considering that Kennedy’s career took an interesting turn in Sacramento. That’s where he issued a ruling that wondered out loud if homosexual acts between consenting adults might be a constitutional right.

The article begins as follows:

Anthony M. Kennedy was a 44-year-old appeals court judge in Sacramento -- a Republican appointee and happily-married Catholic -- when he first confronted the question of whether the Constitution protected the rights of gays and lesbians.His answer in 1980 did not make him a gay rights hero. Kennedy upheld the Navy’s decision to discharge three service members for “homosexual acts.”But less noticed in that somewhat reluctant opinion -- unusual for its time, just two weeks before Ronald Reagan was elected president -- were the doubts Kennedy raised about the constitutionality of laws criminalizing gay sex.  “To many persons, the regulations [labeling homosexuals as unfit] may seem unwise,” Kennedy wrote for the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Outside the “unique” military context, the Constitution may well protect “consensual private homosexual conduct.”Judges Antonin Scalia and Robert Bork, whom Reagan appointed to the U.S. appeals court in Washington, dismissed as “completely frivolous” the notion that the Constitution extended rights to gays and lesbians."We would find it impossible to conclude that a right to homosexual conduct is fundamental" and protected as a matter of liberty and privacy, they wrote in 1984.Reagan would later nominate both Scalia and Bork to the Supreme Court, but Bork’s nomination failed after a momentous Senate battle. After Bork’s defeat, Reagan turned to a young lawyer he had known from his years in Sacramento -- Anthony Kennedy. It turned out to be pivotal moment in the nation's struggle over gay rights.

It’s hard to ignore the repetition of the phrase “gay rights” in nearly every paragraph. “Gay rights” is like “abortion rights;” a loaded phrase on a loaded topic that denotes acceptance. Who in their right mind would be against something with the word “rights” attached?

And there’s that tantalizing religion ghost that shows up in the lead paragraph and then disappears for the rest of the piece.

Kennedy was or is a Roman Catholic? Last we heard, that’s an ancient body that takes a very strong stance on homosexual acts. Was part of Kennedy’s dithering on the topic the result of any religious teaching he might have picked up in church? Remember, he was an altar boy once. Does he attend church now?

We’ll never know because the reporter never circles back to tell us. The faith element was worth waving in the lede, then not worthy of follow-up work.

Then we hear that Kennedy’s friends don’t know which way he leans, but that:

Instead, Kennedy’s friends and former law clerks point to a repeated theme running through his court opinions -- that the Constitution protects “dignity” and “decency,” two concepts that sometimes align him with liberals.

Really? Some of us think of the anti-Internet porn Communications Decency Act of 1996 when we hear the word “decency.” As for “dignity,” the Oregon Death With Dignity Act (the nation’s first) wasn’t passed until 1994. Kennedy’s ruling was in 1980.

Chances are that no one was linking those two words to any lefty causes at the time. Plus other publications, like the New Republic, have shot down the "dignity" connection. But the reporter is sure trying to get us to go in that direction. The piece goes on to illustrate Kennedy’s seeming evolution on gay sex and how he’s been saying all along there’s no reason to deny marriage to homosexual couples. And the reporter may be right but this reads more like an opinion piece -- and should have been labeled as such -- than as traditional, straight-forward news work.

The journalism bottom line: This story contains no quotes from anyone contesting this view of Kennedy or offering selections from his rulings that contradict the flow of this narrative.

Surely, to quote Al Gore, there are some inconvenient truths lurking somewhere and maybe Kennedy is not the shoe-in on homosexual unions that the Times portrays him as being. At least give us the opportunity to hear from some articulate people who beg to differ.

Or there may be conservative publications that say Kennedy is a poor excuse for a Catholic jurist and that he's a good example of how one can grow up Catholic and not understand the central teachings of the church. I know many publications have made up their minds as to how the wind’s blowing and they’re not going to step in the way of this juggernaut. And the Times isn’t alone in trying to foresee the future.

The Associated Press writes here about the crucial intellectual and social role played by Kennedy’s “gay mentor” who of course must have influenced the justice back in his Sacramento days. However, friend-of-this-blog Rod Dreher points out that sympathy to homosexuals is one thing; finding a right to gay marriage in the Constitution is another. And the latter is what’s before the Court. That's the news story.

Categories: Main

Bizarre Kellerism debate: Was Bobby Ross Jr. calling for bias in favor of Jeffrey Dahmer?

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Every week or two -- either in private emails, on Twitter or perhaps in our comments pages -- I get involved in a debate with a reader about an issue that's at the heart of GetReligion's work. The hook is usually a post in which the press, when covering a controversial issue, has focused almost all of it its attention on the views of one side of the argument while demoting the other side to one or two lines of type, usually shallow, dull information drawn from a website or press release.

The reader, in effect, is defending what we call "Kellerism" -- click here for a refresher on that term -- and says that there is no need to give equal play to the voices on both sides because it is already obvious who is right and who is wrong. The reader says that GetReligion is biased because we still think there is a debate to be covered (think Indiana), while we believe that it's crucial to treat people on both sides of these debates with respect and cover their views as accurately as possible.

My slogan, shared with students down the years: Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.

This cuts against a popular "New Journalism" theory from the late '60s and the '70s arguing that balance, fairness and professional standards linked to the word "objectivity" are false newsroom gods and that journalists should call the truth the truth and move on. Some may remember a minor dust-up a few years ago when a powerful news consumer seemed to affirm this "false balance" thesis in a New York Times story:

As president, however, he has come to believe the news media have had a role in frustrating his ambitions to change the terms of the country’s political discussion. ...Privately and publicly, Mr. Obama has articulated what he sees as two overarching problems: coverage that focuses on political winners and losers rather than substance; and a “false balance,” in which two opposing sides are given equal weight regardless of the facts.

This brings us, believe it or not, to our own Bobby Ross Jr. and his much-discussed (and trolled) post on the state of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer's soul. Click here to catch up on that subject.

Ross focused on the New York Post interview with the inmate who killed Dahmer and the fact that the story accepts, as proven fact, this man's denial of Dahmer's repentance and change of heart about his crimes.

While Bobby had to spike many troll sermonettes, reader Jake had this response to Bobby's pleas for comments to focus on basic journalism issues, rather than commenting on whether Dahmer was "saved" or not. 

So an article comments section supporting the sincerity of Dahmer's religious experience is not the place to voice one's opinions on the sincerity of Dahmer's religious experience? That makes sense.

Note the word "supporting."

In reality, Ross had said that it was strange for the Post to print the claim that Dahmer had not repented without a single reference to the testimony of those who said that he had. In other words, the reader seemed to think that simply airing testimony on the other side of the debate was the same as endorsing it. A story with conflicting testimonies, one that asked readers to read both sides for themselves, was a story offering "false balance."

Actually, Ross was saying that ignoring one side of the debate was bad journalism, since it seemed to endorse -- without skepticism -- the views of the subject of the Post exclusive. Ross asked if editors at the Post had ever considered Googling "Jeffrey Dahmer" and "repentance."

Ross knew quite a bit about this case since he covered it as a mainstream newspaper reporter. Way back in 1994, the pre-WWW era for me, I wrote a column about Dahmer's proclamations of faith and how they shed some light on modern debates about heaven and hell. In 2005, I put that full text online here at GetReligion. Here's a key passage of that column, which I wrote after reading all of the key news accounts and talking to a chaplain who actually attended Bible studies and worship services with the killer:

Dahmer died ... after he was attacked while cleaning a prison bathroom. He died while saving the life of another inmate, shielding the body of a man who was under attack. This inmate was critically injured and a third is the prime suspect.Dahmer was serving 15 consecutive life terms after confessing to killing 17 young males. He also said he dismembered some of his victims, had sex with their corpses and ate parts of their bodies. The blond-haired, blank-faced killer became a national symbol of the demonic. Dahmer confessed his crimes, but no one seemed inclined to forgive him.Nevertheless, he seemed to find peace through prison Bible studies and, in May, he made a public profession of faith and was baptized. After praying that God would forgive his sins, Dahmer became remarkably calm about his fate -- even after an inmate tried to slit his throat during a July chapel service.Traditional Christians would have to say that Dahmer is heaven bound, if his repentance was sincere.The problem is that many people seem to believe that there are two kinds of sins, and sinners. First, there are ordinary, good people who commit garden variety sins. They go to heaven, no matter what. Then there are the really bad sinners, especially those whose sins are linked to violence, drugs or sexual perversions. They are doomed to hell, no matter what.

Now, does this mean that we automatically know the state of Dahmer's soul? No, but we do know that people witnessed events in which it APPEARED that he confessed his sins. The baptism was a public act and on the record.

Now, the Post has new testimony from someone with another point of view, information that was not public in 1994 in earlier coverage. That's interesting, to say the least.

However, it is not "false balance" or biased to argue that it would be good to let readers -- today -- explore both points of view in that debate about Dahmer, sin, repentance and grace. Right? What's the argument for airing only one side?

Categories: Main

Icing on the cake: Tasty coverage on bakery fined $135,000 in religious freedom vs. gay rights case

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Surprise!

Wedding cakes — specifically wedding cakes for same-sex couples — are making headlines again.

In the past, we've discussed the "frame game" as it relates to how news organizations characterize these cases pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights:

Here's the journalistic issue, related to framing: Is "deny service" or "refuse service" really the right way to describe what occurs when a baker declines to make a cake for a same-sex wedding?Or does such wording favor one side of a debate pitting gay rights vs. religious freedom?

So let's consider how the media covered the latest case making news, starting with The Associated Press:

Judge proposes Oregon bakery pay $135,000 to lesbian couple http://t.co/ULmb9Vtb53

— The Seattle Times (@seattletimes) April 25, 2015

The AP's lede:

PORTLAND, Ore. — An administrative law judge proposed Friday that the owners of a suburban Portland bakery pay $135,000 to a lesbian couple who were refused service more than two years ago.

Sorry, but that lede doesn't cut it.

Why not? Because it reflects only one side of the debate: the gay rights side. It ignores the religious freedom claim (although readers do learn those details as they keep reading the AP story).

Next up: Reuters:

Judge: #Oregon bakery should pay gay couple $135,000 over wedding cake http://t.co/oCw2CT9Gqd #LGBT pic.twitter.com/kmy16urX7N

— Reuters Legal (@ReutersLegal) April 28, 2015

Reuters' lede:

An Oregon judge has ruled that the owners of a Portland-area bakery who refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple should pay the couple $135,000 in damages, state officials said Tuesday.

Sorry, but that lede doesn't cut it either. 

Why not? Again, it fails to reflect the religious freedom claim.

But the second lede is better than the first in this respect: Rather than use a generic statement like "refused service," Reuters specifies that the bakery "refused to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple." 

Last up: The Oregonian:

Same-sex couple in Sweet Cakes controversy should receive $135,000, hearings officer says. http://t.co/tOjVzbYas9

— The Oregonian (@Oregonian) April 24, 2015

The Portland newspaper's lede:

The lesbian couple turned away by a Gresham bakery that refused to make them a wedding cake for religious reasons should receive $135,000 in damages for their emotional suffering, a state hearings officer says.

That lede may not be perfect, but it's certainly adequate. It supplies the facts. It reflects both sides.

In fact, The Oregonian's story does a nice job overall of treating the subject matter in an evenhanded, impartial manner and giving all sides a voice.

Leading up to the judge's ruling, The Oregonian produced a related story interviewing a handful of Portland-area bakers and florists on the issue: 

Bakers, florists on front lines of religious freedom and same-sex marriage debate. http://t.co/edQTMSqYDH pic.twitter.com/cnQieA239E

— The Oregonian (@Oregonian) April 17, 2015

Some tasty journalistic icing from that Oregonian cake:

Seri Lopez is a cake artist and designer who works out of her home in the Stafford area, near Lake Oswego. She's been in business since 2005 as sole proprietor of SeriousCake.com.Like Aaron and Melissa Klein, the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, she is a Christian."I do have my beliefs," Lopez said. "I know what the Lord says about gay marriage, but it's not for me to judge. As a business owner, you have to serve everybody."Should I tell someone who's lying, stealing or committing adultery that I'm not going to serve them? It has nothing to do with sugar, flour and eggs."Lopez said she has prepared cakes for many gay clients' weddings, birthdays and other special occasions.She understands the emotional investment involved - on both sides - when a couple selects someone to bake a cake to celebrate their wedding. And, she said, she understands why people who oppose same-sex marriages - not just Christians, but people of other faiths - might hesitate to prepare a cake for a gay wedding."People are making a covenant between the person they are marrying and God, and they (the baker) are blessing that recognition of matrimony," Lopez said. "If it's against their beliefs, they wouldn't want to put their blessing on it."Lopez knows the Kleins and considers Melissa a friend. She said it's been sad to see the couple vilified on social media."I can't believe what happened to Aaron and his wife," she said. "I see people's hate against this family. As a society, we're like dogs. We're attacking and there's no stopping. Where's the fairness?"

Amid an ongoing debate such as this, it's easy for a news organization to focus on the talking heads and familiar arguments. As a result, the coverage becomes predictable and stale.

Kudos to The Oregonian for taking the initiative to interview real people on the front lines and produce a story that is interesting and enlightening.

Categories: Main

Believe it or not: a holy ghost in New York Post exclusive on Jeffrey Dahmer's killer

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

On its front page Tuesday, the New York Post touted an exclusive interview with the fellow inmate who killed serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer two decades ago:

The man who murdered notorious killer cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer tells all http://t.co/UFQ8PBGzPv pic.twitter.com/ei8Oh7T9iF

— New York Post (@nypost) April 28, 2015

Yes, I know it's shocking to hear that the Post produced a piece of tabloid journalism. And somewhere today, a dog bit a mailman.

But stick with me for a moment, and I'll explain my reason for highlighting this story. There really is a GetReligion angle. Promise.

First, let me share the Post's graphic lede:

Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer was done in by his uncontrollable lust for human flesh, the man who whacked him in prison 20 years ago told The Post, revealing for the first time why the cannibal had to die.Christopher Scarver — who fatally beat the serial killer and another inmate in 1994 — said he grew to despise Dahmer because he would fashion severed limbs out of prison food to taunt the other inmates.He’d drizzle on packets of ketchup as blood.It was very unnerving.“He would put them in places where people would be,” Scarver, 45, recalled in a low, gravelly voice.“He crossed the line with some people — prisoners, prison staff. Some people who are in prison are repentant — but he was not one of them.”

From personal experience, I know that murderers interviewed in prison can tell crazy stories. A Tennessee inmate condemned to die for seven murders told me in 2003 that the government used him as "an experimental lab rat" and controlled his mind and body with scientific technology.

But here's what frustrating about the Post report: The New York newspaper presents Dahmer's lack of repentance as a fact.

While acknowledging — again — that we're talking about a tabloid, I wonder: Did the Post consider Googling "Jeffrey Dahmer" and "repentance?"

Before he died, Dahmer made a high-profile conversion to Christianity.

On the day Dahmer died, I wrote this front-page story for The Oklahoman:

Joy — not sadness — characterized Curt Booth's voice Monday after hearing the news of mass murderer Jeffrey Dahmer's death in a Wisconsin prison.But Booth, an ex-convict turned Oklahoma prison minister, had no vindictive feelings toward the man who confessed to murdering 17 men and boys and eating some of them.Instead, the Crescent man — who earlier this year mailed Dahmer a Bible and later helped find a preacher to baptize him — talked about someday joining a fellow Christian in heaven."I know Jeffrey was ready," said Booth, 64, a Crescent Church of Christ member who served more than four years in prison for what he called "thievery. " "Today, all the angels in heaven are rejoicing because Jeffrey has come home." Booth said he has no doubt about the sincerity of Dahmer's conversion, which he credits to Jesus Christ.

Twenty-two years later, the journalistic issue isn't whether Dahmer's conversion was sincere. 

Rather, the question is: Why ignore that crucial detail in a story that purports to "tell all?"

I know. I know. Consider the source.

Categories: Main

Lo! A Washington Post scribe gets the religious-liberty angle in the Supreme Court story

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Well this is awkward.

Going into the coverage of the great U.S. Supreme Court debate on same-sex marriage, I knew that most of the coverage would -- for valid reasons -- focus on the strictly legal, political and social elements of this major story.

I knew everyone would -- for valid reasons -- focus on Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the leader of our nation when push comes to shove. Duh. I knew that religion would play little or no role in most of the mainstream coverage, since concerns about "religious liberty" (with scare quotes) and related First Amendment concerns are now "conservative news."

So I went into this with a simple task in mind. I wanted to know if anyone in the mainstream media recognized the ultimate church-state end game, which, if sexual orientation equals race, would include calls on the cultural left for doctrinally conservative religious institutions (especially schools, social-service agencies and parachurch ministries) to be stripped of their tax exemptions. The key: Search for "Bob Jones University" in the coverage.

As expected, the religious-liberty angle was covered in many alternative, "conservative" news reports (such as this, this and this). As expected, elite newsrooms didn't explore that angle in their main stories, since old-school First Amendment liberalism has suddenly become a "conservative" thing.

But lo and behold, one story in The Washington Post focused in, tight, on this angle that is of great interest to millions of Americans in doctrinally conservative churches, synagogues, mosques and their related ministries. So what's the problem here at GetReligion? The byline on that story belongs to former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey, whose work, for obvious reasons, we rarely push or critique. Like I said -- awkward. So where did she start?

The Supreme Court Tuesday considered whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry, raising questions about how it would affect religious institutions.During oral arguments, Justice Samuel Alito compared the case to that of Bob Jones University, a fundamentalist Christian university in South Carolina. The Supreme Court ruled in 1983 the school was not entitled to a tax-exempt status if it barred interracial marriage.Here is an exchange between Alito and Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., arguing for the same-sex couples on behalf of the Obama administration.Justice Alito: Well, in the Bob Jones case, the Court held that a college was not entitled to tax­exempt status if it opposed interracial marriage or interracial dating.So would the same apply to a 10 university or a college if it opposed same­-sex marriage?General Verrilli:  You know, ­­I don’t think I can answer that question without knowing more specifics, but it’s certainly going to be an issue. I don’t deny that. I don’t deny that, Justice Alito.  It is­­ it is going to be an issue.

Later on, there was another wrinkle linked to the free exercise of religious convictions by doctrinally conservative religious institutions:

Chief Justice John Roberts asked, “Would a religious school that has married housing be required to afford such housing to same-­sex couples?”Verrilli said that individual states could strike different balances because there there is no federal law now generally banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.Justice Stephen Breyer asked whether purely religious reasons to oppose same-sex marriage were sufficient. John Bursch, who argued for state bans against same-sex marriage, replied that he is not arguing on the religious grounds.

Of course, a key issue in this case is the status of state laws linked to same-sex marriage, should the high court proclaim a CONSTITUTIONAL right to same-sex marriage. In other words, stay tuned.

In the actual Washington Post mainbar on this event -- the ink-on-paper news -- questions linked to religion and faith received little or no attention, as was the norm in mainstream news as a rule. This is fascinating since -- think Indiana -- questions linked to religious doctrine and practice keep leaping into the headlines when the practical effects of same-sex marriage reach the level of, well, local pizza parlors.

The Post mainbar did note this (but read carefully):

Justice Antonin Scalia said that if the decisions on marriage continue to be made democratically by the states, those states could make religious accommodations that would not be possible if there was a decision that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right.“Is it conceivable that a minister who is authorized by the state to conduct marriage can decline to marry two men if indeed this court holds that they have a constitutional right to marry?” he asked.Bonauto said it was well established that clergy are not forced to perform actions that violate their religious beliefs.

But journalists need to know that, in terms of religion news, that isn't the crucial issue. The New York Times mainbar fell into the same logical trap (the one avoided by Bailey in her digital sidebar at the Post). Here's the Times religion material:

Justices Scalia and Samuel A. Alito Jr. were more consistent in opposing a constitutional right to such unions.Justice Scalia said a ruling for same-sex marriage might require some members of the clergy to perform ceremonies that violate their religious teaching, a notion that Ms. Bonauto rejected.Justice Alito asked whether groups of four people must be allowed to marry. “And let’s say they’re all consenting adults, highly educated,” he said, and then added, to laughter, “They’re all lawyers.”Ms. Bonauto responded that marriage is about the mutual commitment of two people.The proceedings were calm but for a brief interruption by a protester. “You can burn in hell,” he yelled from the rear of the courtroom. “It’s an abomination of God.”Courtroom security officers promptly dragged him from the room. Justice Scalia did not seem bothered by the disturbance. “Rather refreshing, actually,” he said.

As with the fights over the Health and Human Services mandate, the church-state danger zone falls in between the rights of institutions focusing on worship and work with members of a specific, doctrinally defined flock and the rights of doctrinally defined institutions that deal with the public -- such as schools, hospitals, social-work agencies, parachurch groups, etc.

The fight isn't about what happens in a local Catholic worship space, but what happens when the Little Sisters of the Poor reach out to the poor and needy, period. The fight isn't about what happens in Sunday school classrooms, but what happens in the dorms and programs of doctrinally defined religious colleges and universities.

Did anyone out there in GetReligion reader land find other MAINSTREAM news coverage that saw the religious-liberty angle in this major story?

Please leave us some URLs and, of course, focus your commentary on the journalism angles of this story, not your views of liberal and conservative believers involved in these debates. If you have non-journalistic venom to share, please go elsewhere.

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