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Salt Lake Tribune gingerly tackles transgendered Mormons

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Mormons have gotten lots of publicity lately for their efforts to deal with same-sex marriage and the place of homosexuals in church doctrine. And now yet one more issue pokes up its head: Transgendered church members.

Trans issues are the flavor of the moment in media coverage of pop culture and universities, so it’s not too surprising that The Salt Lake Tribune devoted quite a bit of space to this topic on Monday. The report starts thusly:

Sixteen-year-old Grayson Moore had no label, only metaphors, to describe the disconnect he felt between his body and soul.It was like car sickness, he says, when your eyes and inner ears disagree about whether you are moving."It makes you sick," Moore says. "That's the same with gender."When Moore's mother gave her then-daughter a vocabulary for the feelings -- "gender dysphoria" or transgender -- there followed an immediate sense of relief and recognition.And, he says, God confirmed that he was not just a tomboy. He was in the wrong body.Such moments come in the life of all transgender persons -- times when vague feelings of general discomfort with their identity crystallize into that realization.Annabel Jensen was deciding whether to serve a Mormon mission. Sara Jade Woodhouse was married and had fathered a child.In these three cases, their Mormonism -- with its emphasis on the physical link between bodies and spirits and its insistence that gender is "eternal" -- initially made it tougher to acknowledge what was happening inside of them.Since switching genders (though none has had sex-reassignment surgery), all three say they have found psychological and theological peace, even divine approval, and a surprising welcome from their local LDS leaders and congregations.

Next comes a quote from LDS apostle Dallin H. Oaks that -- considering the massive theological problems the Mormons have with changing one’s gender -- is very conciliatory and open to change. A writer from Slate called his remarks “the most significant -- and underreported -- statement from that session.  

The Tribune article states what church doctrine is at the moment and explains how the LDS church is very gendered. Women and men have separate roles, separate meetings and separate seating arrangements. If you’re baptized as one gender, currently it’s impossible to be assigned another.

Next comes stories of three Mormons who are switching from the gender they were born with.  One is a 22-year-old college math major who has transitioned from Grace to Grayson. Both he and his mother say they prayed about it and felt God’s approval, so he began attending church as a male. He has the support of his bishop and attends all-male priesthood meetings but is still listed as a female on church rolls.

I have a small bone to pick with this part of the article, which quotes extensively from the mother, a molecular biologist, on the necessity of sex reassignment surgery and the need for the LDS church to accept transgendered people as full church members. The mom, who is hardly an objective bystander, is treated as an expert.

The next person cited is a male teenager who became a woman. Her family rejected her, but her local singles ward does not and she’s allowed in women-only meetings.

Then there is Sara Jade Woodhouse, who was married and the father of a child when he decided that he was a she. Woodhouse is not allowed into woman-only meetings in her ward but hopes some day to marry a man in the Salt Lake Temple. But first she’d have to be excommunicated (as a man), then readmitted and baptized as a woman.

The article doesn’t say what happened to the marriage and if you look at her blog, there’s obviously a back story there. I would have liked to have heard of the fallout from Woodhouse’s decision.

As the article casts transgenderism in a totally positive light, we’re not told what happens to the folks left behind.

I’m curious about the LDS view of gender as eternal in that how is that different from other religions? Maybe in its emphasis on marriage lasting past death?  This obviously wasn’t an easy piece to do, as it’s tough to come up with people who will go on the record while at the same time giving the church some space in which to react. Dallin Oaks’ recent statements opened the door, so one cannot blame the Tribune for walking through it. As is so often the case in coverage of sexuality issues, the primary issue in the story is one of balance.

IMAGE: Photo from Transgender Mormons and Allies. Its use is not an endorsement of GetReligion.

Categories: Main

Los Angeles Times sports section shows how to leap over all essential Indiana facts

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

To understand the current Indiana meltdown, it really helps to get off page one and look at how the basic elements of this state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) story are being covered in other sections of the typical American newspaper. In other words, in the hoops-crazy state of Indiana, it is crucial to see how RFRA is being covered on sports pages.

I'm afraid the following story in The Los Angeles Times is rather typical, starting with that headline: "NCAA feeling pressure to take stand against controversial Indiana law."

For starters, the words "Religious Freedom Restoration Act" do not appear in this story. Readers also do not learn that these state-level laws are in effect in 19 other states, with many other states operating with the understanding that the national RFRA -- a shining moment of church-state sanity from the Bill Clinton era -- will been seen as operative inside their borders. Instead, this is how the story tips things off:

This is usually a happy time of year for college basketball, a chance for the game to take center stage with all eyes focused on March Madness.But just days before the Final Four tips off in Indianapolis, the mood surrounding the tournament has turned serious.With both its title game and its headquarters located in Indiana's capital, the NCAA is facing widespread pressure to take a stand against a hotly debated state law that many fear will lead to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The key words, of course, are "that many fear." Who needs names and titles? A few lines later, this same passive-aggressive journalistic approach is used once again:

It was just last week that Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed SB 101, which prohibits "substantially burdening a person's exercise of religion." Critics worry the law will allow business owners to cite their beliefs in denying service to gays and lesbians.Reaction has been swift, with corporate leaders such as Apple Chief Executive Tim Cook and Yelp Chief Executive Jeremy Stoppelman decrying the legislation. The Internet site Angie's List canceled plans for expanding its Indianapolis headquarters just days before groundbreaking.

Once again, note the key words -- "Critics worry." There is no need, during a tsunami, to actually pause and name the critics or to document the degree to which their views are informed or relevant. There is no time to stop and actually discuss the contents of the bill or some bills linked to it have been used and enforced in the past. There is no space in which to consider the views of people who have studied the impact of this kind of legislation.

In other words, there is little or no time or space for information about why RFRA bills exist. The views of those attacking the Indiana bill are all that matter. The story ends, for example, with a short sermon by Cyd Zeigler, identified as co-founder of Outsports and a member of the LGBT Sports Coalition, with no response from anyone who disagrees with this point of view or who has information that might undercut his statements.

There is no debate here. There is no time or room for journalism. In particular, there is no indication that there are people -- I continue to call them the old liberals -- who are in favor of religious liberty and gay rights.

With that in mind, let me point readers toward a link sent my way this morning by our own Richard Ostling, a patriarch of religion-beat coverage for decades both at Time and the Associated Press. The writer is University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, a source whose views I have been spotlighting for several years now.

Yes, this is taken from The Weekly Standard. However, these are strange times and most of the veteran First Amendment liberals are currently being quoted in conservative media, and not in the new illiberal media. Note that his views are critical of the GOP in Indiana, as well as the state's critics. Imagine that.

Please read this, if you care at all about journalism and improved coverage of this issue. Warning: Some of this involves actual facts about history, topics rarely addressed in modern newsrooms facing a kazillion digital deadlines each day:

The issue with respect to Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRAs) is whether people should be allowed to practice their religion, even when their acts would otherwise be illegal, if they are not doing any real harm. The American tradition of religious liberty has exempted religious practices since the seventeenth century. Quakers in colonial times didn't have to swear oaths, or serve in the militia. Sometimes this is entirely uncontroversial. It is illegal to give alcohol to minors, but no one thinks that law should be applied to communion wine, or seder wine at the Jewish Passover. For a time, the federal Free Exercise Clause (part of the First Amendment) required religious exemptions unless the government had a compelling interest in enforcing its regulation. Then in 1990, the Supreme Court changed that rule, and basically said that the free exercise of religion is protected only against discrimination.Congress responded with the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act in 1993, creating a statutory right to practice your religion, free of government regulation except where necessary to serve a compelling government interest. That law passed unanimously in the House, and 97-3 in the Senate; Bill Clinton praised it and signed it. But in 1997, the Supreme Court said that the federal RFRA could not constitutionally be applied to the states. If states wanted to protect religious practice subject to the compelling interest test, they would have to do it themselves. This is the background to why states began enacting their own RFRAs.There are now twenty states with RFRAs, and eleven more that have interpreted their state constitution to provide the same level of protection. These 31 states include all the big states except California: Texas, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Ohio, Illinois. You had probably never heard anything about any of these laws, except for Hobby Lobby, because they haven't done anything controversial.There are hardly any cases about discrimination, and nobody has ever won a religious exemption from a discrimination law under a RFRA standard. ...

And also:

State RFRAs are quite unlikely to affect discrimination claims. I hope they do affect discrimination claims in certain very narrow contexts: very small businesses providing wedding services or marital counseling services. But I am not optimistic. So far, the religious claimants have lost all of those cases, including the wedding photographer under the New Mexico RFRA, and the florist in Washington under a RFRA-like interpretation of the state constitution.Discrimination cases in other contexts simply don’t come up. The florist in Washington had served her gay customer for years, knowing that the flowers were for his same-sex partner; she had had gay employees. She didn’t object to any of that; she objected to serving the wedding, because she understands weddings and marriages to be inherently religious. She sees civil marriage as resting on the foundation of religious marriage. Of course there are real bigots out there, and some of them discriminate against gays and lesbians. They are doing that in states without RFRAs as well as in states with RFRAs. They mostly aren't asserting religious justifications; they aren't producing cases. And if they do start to produce cases, all experience is that they're going to lose.

And finally:

Part of the problem is conservative legislators and activists promising the base that a state RFRA will protect them against gay-rights laws. That's just pandering; there is no basis in experience to think that. But the gay-rights side has piled on with the charge that these laws are licenses to discriminate. So both sides are misleading the public. And the academics who have actually studied these laws and know what they do can't get anyone to pay attention over the din. ...None of the incredible denunciations of the Indiana RFRA are based on a real case; they are all talking about things that have never actually happened.And if you want to know where I'm coming from: I filed a brief in the Supreme Court urging the Court to require same-sex marriage as a matter of constitutional law. And then to protect the religious liberty of dissenters. I believe in "liberty and justice for all," with an emphasis on "all." Most of the activists in this fight, on both sides, want liberty and justice only for their side. They want to crush the other side.

In other words, on First Amendment issues, Laycock is a liberal.

Categories: Main

It's a bird. It's a plane. It's a front-page editorial in The Indianapolis Star. No, really ...

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

• • •

"Journalism!" said the email I received last night with the above image of today's Indianapolis Star front page.

The sender — an advocate of the religious freedom law passed in Indiana last week — was not making a compliment.

Obviously, the Star's editors have had enough of the national debate over the measure enacted in their state.

Heaven knows my Twitter feed has been filled with debate and links on the subject — on all sides:

.@WSJ @WSJopinion The New Intolerance: Indiana isn’t targeting gays. Liberals targeting religion. #religiousfreedom

— Greg Scott (@ADFmedia) March 31, 2015

Why no one understands Indiana's new religious freedom law

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) March 31, 2015

Thank you @JebBush for these sensible words on RFRA:

— Russell Moore (@drmoore) March 31, 2015

What is the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and what does it really mean for Indiana?

— USA TODAY (@USATODAY) March 31, 2015

Freedom of religion or of discrimination? @GovPenceIn says he won't change Indiana's law.

— Religion NewsService (@RNS) March 30, 2015

Questions For Indiana's Critics:

— Ross Douthat (@DouthatNYT) March 30, 2015

Team @nytimes demonstrates how to do accurate #RFRA coverage. Oh. Wait. That was in 1993. #Scarequotes @GetReligion

— Terry Mattingly (@tweetmattingly) March 30, 2015

Controversy over Indiana's new law shows the dramatic change in how we understand protecting "religion"

— Michelle Boorstein (@mboorstein) March 30, 2015

.@sprothero, a liberal Boston University religion prof., on why he supports LGBT rights & religious liberty at once

— Jaweed Kaleem (@jaweedkaleem) March 30, 2015

@JuddLegum: The big lie the media tells about Indiana's new 'religious freedom' law

— Jaweed Kaleem (@jaweedkaleem) March 30, 2015

10 Americans Helped By Religious Freedom Bills Like Indiana's:

— Mollie (@MZHemingway) March 30, 2015

Back to the Star's Page 1 editorial: what to make of it?

Reaction to that, too, floods my Twitter feed:

Bold: @IndyStar gives up entire front page for editorial on #RFRA #WeAreIndiana

— Cory Schouten (@CorySchouten) March 31, 2015

A great reminder of how print newspapers can still have an impact. #WeAreIndiana

— Hemant Mehta (@hemantmehta) March 31, 2015

As a Hoosier, I don't remember the last time I saw such nationwide attention given to Indiana

— Sarah Pulliam Bailey (@spulliam) March 31, 2015

Here at GetReligion, our mission is clear: We critique mainstream media coverage of religion. We praise strong journalism. We point out holes, bias and, yes, holy ghosts in less-than-perfect stories.

We don't, as a general rule, review editorials. And I'm not going to take sides on the content of the Star's editorial.

But the front-page placement certainly raises questions that reflect on the Star's overall journalism: Foremost among them, can a newspaper take such a "bold" stand — as the Twitter user above described it — and still produce fair, impartial news stories?

Of course, the Star's repeated use of scare quotes ("religious freedom") in headlines concerning the new law haven't done much to scream "We're not taking sides on our news pages!":

What does the "religious freedom" law really means for Indiana?

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 31, 2015

Women's group becomes first to pull its conference from Indy due to "religious freedom" law.

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 30, 2015

Former @Pacers player @ReggieMillerTNT reacts to Indiana's "religious freedom" law.

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 28, 2015

Interestingly, in this battle pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights, the other side does not receive scare quotes in the Star:

Pete Heck: Gay rights activists to Christians — surrender, or else #RFRA

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 27, 2015

Meanwhile, a reader sent us a link to this recent story from the Star:

Why have 'religious freedom' supporters been mostly silent?

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 28, 2015

The reader commented:

The title of the piece uses the unfortunate scare quotes for the phrase religious freedom, but it is on the whole ... very good. It talks to several supporters of the Indiana religious freedom bill, and gives them space to discuss their concerns. My only caveat (aside from the headline) was that they didn't include any comment from the people who are making the bill's supporters "lower their voice" so to speak. I guess that angle has been covered to death, given most newsrooms' opinion on the subject. But it would have been interesting to see them both combined in one article.

Actually I'd characterize the article itself as "OK," not "very good." This seemed strange to me: A piece supposedly about supporters quotes an opponent first — an official with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) — and then a United Methodist who expresses reservations about the law. But yeah, the piece eventually gets around to some actual religious folks who favor the law.

When I worked for The Oklahoman, the newspaper's ownership occasionally insisted on front-page editorials endorsing certain political candidates or issues.

The news reporters and editors always hated those editorials. They compromised the perception of our journalism. Regardless of how fair or balanced we were on a particular subject, many readers could not separate one day's Page 1 editorial from the next day's Page 1 news story. And rightly so.

Welcome to the club, Indianapolis Star. I don't envy the challenge now facing your newsroom, assuming the goal is to produce real journalism, not advocacy.

Categories: Main

Jean Vanier wins the Templeton but many mainstream journalists dismiss the Catholic angle

Monday, March 30, 2015

Jean Vanier, 86, is an extraordinary French-Canadian humanitarian, Catholic philosopher and founder of L’Arche, a federation of communities worldwide for people with disabilities. I had friends who would spend up to a year at his communities in Trosly-Breuil, France and near Toronto.

There are few things in my mind less glamorous than helping the mentally ill, so I was glad to hear that his years of efforts had resulted in winning the Templeton Prize earlier this month. I’m sure he’ll put that $2.1 million to good use.

So what is the journalism problem here?

To be blunt about it: I was surprised at how many of the mainstream news stories about this humble man skirted his Christian commitment.

Is it hard to find this information?

Look, here’s a man who almost became a Catholic priest, but instead found he had a more unusual worldwide parish. He’s never married and any interview with him -- such as this 2006 piece by Religion & Ethics Newsweekly -- will produce a ton of quotes having to do with God.

So what happened in the new coverage? This recent Toronto Star piece -- except for the very end -- skirts the religion angle. This Huffington Post piece totally avoids it. At least this editorial in The Toronto Globe and Mail notes that Vanier’s award was given to someone whose work has been built on his faith.

Spirituality is too often defined within sectarian limits. But the values expressed by Jean Vanier, as he’s lived a humble life of compassion for wounded humanity, transcend the Biblical message and Catholic theology that inspired him.

To be honest, I am not sure what the writer meant by that -- Vanier more exemplifies those things more than transcends them – but at least the writer was onto something basic and true about this man's life.

Most mentions I found of Vanier were in editorials, columns and blogs. On the brighter side, The Montreal Gazette openly linked Vanier’s Catholic faith with winning the award.

Meanwhile, the team at Catholic News Service did the best job at covering this simple man, doing a phone interview, getting original quotes and filling the article with information on how Vanier got where he is today by simply following Jesus. In other words, CNS covered the story.

Categories: Main

Flashback! When religious freedom didn't have scare quotes in The New York Times

Monday, March 30, 2015

As the media firestorm continues in Indiana, your GetReligionistas have heard from readers asking to know the essential differences between the Indiana law that is under attack and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) passed with bipartisan enthusiasm during the administration of President Bill Clinton. Simply stated, the national RFRA has served as the models for the various state RFRA bills through the years, including the law that -- when he was in the Illinois state senate -- drew the support of Barack Obama.

Reporters covering this story may, in addition to actually studying the contents of the bill, want to study the impact these state bills have had in the 19 states that have adopted the same language. This Washington Post piece, with map, is quite helpful. Have these bills been abused? There may be stories there.

Yes, it's crucial for reporters to actually consider what happens when these bills are used in real cases, with real defendants, in real courts, even in conservative zip codes. Consider, for example, this Texas press release in 2009 in which the American Civil Liberties Union cheered the state's RFRA law:

The Texas Supreme Court ruled in favor of Pastor Rick Barr who challenged an ordinance passed by the City of Sinton (Barr v. City of Sinton) to close a half-way house for low-level offenders across from the pastor’s church, Grace Christian Fellowship.“Today’s decision is significant because it is one of the Court’s first cases to affirmatively construe Texas’ Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA),” said Lisa Graybill, legal director of the ACLU of Texas. ...“This decision sends a strong message to state and local governments in Texas that the Court will not tolerate state action that targets a religious group, whatever their faith,” said Graybill. The court’s ruling upholds the intent of the RFRA to prevent state and local government officials from substantially burdening the free exercise of religion, including religious practices and religiously motivated conduct, without a compelling justification for doing so, she explained.  ”This is a major victory not just for Pastor Barr and Philemon Homes, but for all Texans who cherish religious freedom.”

However, journalists seeking guidance on style issues related to RFRA laws -- should, for example, terms such as "religious freedom" and "religious liberty" be framed with scare quotes -- may want to consult another authoritative source. That would be The New York Times. However, in this case we are talking about the Times of 1993.

Let us attend:

WASHINGTON, Nov. 16 -- President Clinton today signed into law legislation requiring the Government to meet stringent standards before instituting measures that might interfere with religious practices.The new law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, overturns a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that set a looser standard for laws that restrict religious practices.That ruling, Employment Division v. Smith, abandoned a long accepted principle of constitutional interpretation that required the Government to demonstrate a "compelling state interest" to justify any measure restricting religious practices. Under the ruling, restrictions were acceptable as long as they were not aimed at religious groups alone.The new law restores the old standard, and even in cases where Government concerns like health or safety do justify infringements of religious practices, the new law requires the use of whatever means would be least restrictive to religion. After the 1990 decision, religious groups could not claim exemptions from routine legislation or regulations on the basis of the First Amendment's guarantee of religious freedom.

Note that the term religious freedom is used accurately and without irony. Once again, it is crucial to note that we are talking about legislation, then and now, built on the same template as that used by a bipartisan coalition that including a stunningly wide range of secular and religious groups.

Thus, the Times of 1993 noted:

President Clinton hailed the new law at the signing ceremony, saying that it held government "to a very high level of proof before it interferes with someone's free exercise of religion."J. Brent Walker, general counsel of the Baptist Joint Committee on Public Affairs called the new law "the most significant piece of legislation dealing with our religious liberty in a generation."His sentiments were echoed by many other members of an unusual coalition of liberal, conservative and religious groups that had pressed for the new law. The coalition included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Those seeking the full text of Clinton's speech at this event can click here.

And who supported this language on The Hill?

In the Senate, where the bill was approved 97 to 3 on Oct. 27, it was sponsored by Senators Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Orrin G. Hatch, Republican of Utah. In the House, which passed the bill last May by a voice vote without objection, it was sponsored by Representative Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of Brooklyn, and Representative Christopher C. Cox, Republican of California.

Finally, I would urge reporters interested in additional background materials on the Indiana fight to watch some of the sessions recorded during the "Free Religion in a Diverse Society" forum held at the Newseum -- not known as a center for the religious right -- back in 2013. Most of the speakers were (a) supporters of gay marriage, (b) supporters of RFRA laws and (c) highly concerned about the legal implications of recent American debates on these topics.

Here is a key quote from the event, drawn from one of my "On Religion" columns. This speaker is University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock, but several other old-school liberal participants used very similar language, including Marc Stern of the American Jewish Committee.

Laycock noted that:

... there has been a violent legal and political clash between gay rights and the rights of religious conscientious objectors. At this point, it may be too late to find a compromise that would protect citizens on both sides of this constitutional firefight. ...As the gay-rights cause has gained momentum, its leaders have grown increasingly bold. More than a few liberals, said Laycock, not only want to seize sexual freedoms, but to force religious objectors to affirm their choices and even to pay for them. Some on the left, he said, are now "making arguments calculated to destroy religious liberty."Consider, Laycock said, language used by state Sen. Pat Steadman of Denver, as he fought for a civil unions bill in the Colorado Senate. ... What should liberals say to those who claim that their religious liberties are being violated?"I'll tell you what I'd say -- get thee to a nunnery," he said, in debate recorded on the Senate floor. "Go live a monastic life, away from modern society, away from the people you can't see as equals to yourself. Away from the stream of commerce where you might have to serve them, or employ them, or rent banquet halls to them. Go someplace and be as judgmental as you like. Go inside your church, establish separate water fountains, if you want."This was provocative language, but this gay leader was using arguments now common in American politics, said Laycock. "No living in peace and equality and diversity for him. If you are a religious dissenter you have to conform or withdraw. For many people this hostility to religious liberty is a growing and intuitive reaction."

Once again, reporters are covering the same RFRA concepts and language today. Do they know that?

My advice: Read the bill. Read the RFRA history. Call articulate legal voices on both sides of the current debate. Ask them questions. Print the answers. Strive for a balance in the voices, including the voices of traditional liberals who remain committed to RFRA and freedom of conscience on these complex issues. Don't join the thundering herd. Strive to do basic journalism that treats both sides with respect. Is that possible right now?

Categories: Main

Blurring news and views: RNS dissects cardinal's quotes on gay marriage

Monday, March 30, 2015

A week after praising Presbyterians for endorsing same-sex marriage -- and scolding United Methodists for not doing the same -- the Religion News Service caricatures the views of  a Catholic cardinal about gays.

This week, the target is Cardinal Raymond Burke, who was moved from a powerful Vatican post to patron of the Knights of Malta. When LifeSite News sought him out, he agreed to an interview.

An interview that displeased RNS, which summarized Burke's views in a startling headline: "Cardinal Raymond Burke: Gays, remarried Catholics, murderers are all the same."

Whoa. Keep that guy away from electric chairs, right?

What Burke told LifeSite, of course -- again, after he was asked -- was that the Catholic Church still considers some deeds to be grave sins.  He continues:

And to give the impression that somehow there's something good about living in a state of grave sin is simply contrary to what the Church has always and everywhere taught.LSN: So when the man in the street says, yes, it's true these people are kind, they are dedicated, they are generous, that is not enough?CB: Of course it's not. It's like the person who murders someone and yet is kind to other people…

RNS writer David Gibson acknowledges that the comments "break little theological ground; the church has always taught that sin is sin, and some sins are especially serious." But he presses his case:

But comparing those situations in any context is unusual, and certainly out of step with the pastoral tone that Francis has set in his papacy. Moreover, reformers argue that a murderer — or almost any other sinner — can go to confession, receive absolution, and take Communion in a state of grace. But there is no such option for a gay person or those who are divorced and remarried, except permanent celibacy.The cardinal’s comments take on added weight in the context of the increasingly heated debate that Francis opened over how the church should respond to rapid changes in family life in the modern world.

Why is this story holding a microscope to a largely ceremonial leader? Because, according to RNS -- right in the lede sentence -- Burke was "demoted" in a way that was "viewed as a way to sideline one of the pontiff's most outspoken critics on the right."

Mind you, this story lacks a label like "opinion" or "analysis" or "commentary" or "editorial," which would have freed the writer to stack cards and give his viewpoint. No, this is all set forth as factual coverage.

I'm not the only one who noticed. "What is this?" one of our faithful readers wrote us. "I looked and couldn't tell if I was supposed to be reading a news story, analysis or opinion. But this is David Gibson, so maybe he gets a pass?"

In places, the RNS article seems to try to link the gay cause with those of divorced and remarried people. Gibson hearkens to the Synod of Bishops last October, and says church reformers share similar views "toward gay couples and those who are divorced or cohabitating."

He quotes Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn that the Church should "look at the person and not the sexual orientation." He also cites Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who says that if a gay couple has been together for decades, you can't say the relationship is "nothing."  (In fairness, however, RNS notes that Marx specifically doesn't endorse homosexuality.)

So that's two against one, on the side of changing church law about gay couples. (Oh, and only Burke's age, 66, is listed. Code for "old and rigid," perhaps?) Actually, it's three against one, if you share the belief that Burke's words clash with Francis' "pastoral tone."

But the article could have mentioned someone like Cardinal Gerhard Muller, who defended traditional families as a way of understanding the relationship of God with his people. Muller also said that children have a "natural, inherent right to a father and a mother to live with them." But that wouldn't sound very reform-minded.

Nor is it unanimous that the pope moved Burke to the Knights of Malta as some kind of demotion. Not when Francis himself denied he was punishing Burke for speaking his mind.

And how yielding, in fact, is Francis on gay matters? Yes, he's spoken pastorally, wanting to accept gays who are seeking God, and wanting to help parents stand by gay children. Not so yielding, though, if you ask about approval of same-sex marriage.

In January, for instance, the pope said, "The family is threatened by growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage, by relativism, by the culture of the ephemeral, by a lack of openness to life." He also decried "growing efforts on the part of some to redefine the very institution of marriage."

The same Crux magazine article noted that in November, during a Vatican conference, Francis called heterosexual marriage "an anthropological fact … that cannot be qualified based on ideological notions or concepts important only at one time in history."

BTW, LifeSite asked Burke whether he was giving a doctrinal answer to a pastoral matter. He called that a "false distinction":

There cannot be anything that's truly pastorally sound which is not doctrinally sound. In other words: you cannot divide the truth from love. In other words still: it can't be loving not to live the truth. And so to say that we're just making pastoral changes that have nothing to do with doctrine is false.

The RNS article ignores that quote. Didn't fit the thesis, I guess.

Faithful Reader also faults the RNS piece for overlooking Burke's positive statement about married couples: "There is no greater force against evil than the love of a man and woman in marriage. After the Holy Eucharist, it has a power beyond anything we can imagine." Our reader considered that quote to be the "real story" because "I have never, in all my reading on this issue, heard any cleric say anything like that about marriage."

Most of the above is just to argue with the individual points. The major point, remember, is labeling. RNS could use all the arguments and selective quotes it wanted with proper warning to the reader -- a warning that it had crossed from reporting to commentary. Why didn't it?

Soooo, what was Burke's real offense here? Apparently that he still speaks for a wing of cardinals who don’t want to exchange centuries-old teachings for modern moral fashion. How dare he try to sway opinion? Leave that to reporters.

Photo: Cardinal Raymond Burke, 2014. Photographer: Pufui Pc Pifpef I, via Wikimedia Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Categories: Main

Once again: Do journalists believe there is good religion and then bad religion?

Sunday, March 29, 2015

This week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) focused on one of those nasty Godbeat topics that I have been wrestling with since, oh, 1980 or so. The question: Does the press hate religion and/or religious people?

This subject, of course, came up in a post here at GetReligion recently, in which I reacted to a classic M.Z. Hemingway piece at The Federalist that ran under a flaming headline: "Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell."

In her piece, M.Z. made a reference to the "modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions, and religious liberty in general." While affirming the rest of her piece, I stressed that I remain convinced that the majority of elite American journalists believe that there are good religious groups and bad religious groups and that the goods tend to be led by clergy and intellectuals "whose moral theology fits naturally with Woodstock and the editorial pages of The New York Times."

As William Proctor -- a Harvard Law graduate and former legal affairs reporter for The New York Daily News -- put it in his book "The Gospel According to The New York Times," the world's most influential newsroom doesn't reject all forms of religion, but does reject what he called the "sin of religious certainty." They reject claims by Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc., who claim that their faiths affirm eternal, transcendent, revealed truth.

Now, is this a debate that has something to do with core journalism discussions of accuracy, objectivity, truth telling, etc.? That's where I thought I would point GetReligion readers to a classic discussion of some of these issues on the left, in the form of a great PressThink piece by Jay Rosen of New York University called "Journalism Is Itself a Religion."

A chunk of the massive subtitle points toward some even deeper issues in this discussion: "The newsroom is a nest of believers if we include believers in journalism itself. There is a religion of the press. There is also a priesthood. And there can be a crisis of faith. ..." So here is the section that I think will be especially interesting to GetReligion readers:

Three: The Orthodoxy of No OrthodoxyNinety percent of the commentary on this subject takes in another kind of question entirely: What results from the “relative godlessness of mainstream journalists?” Or, in a more practical vein: How are editors and reporters striving to improve or beef up their religion coverage?Here and there in the discussion of religion “in” the news, there arises a trickier matter, which is the religion of the newsroom, and of the priesthood in the press. A particularly telling example began with this passage from a 1999 New York Times Magazine article about anti-abortion extremism: “It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy,” wrote David Samuels.This struck some people as dogma very close to religious dogma, and they spoke up about it. One was Terry Mattingly, a syndicated columnist of religion:This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist’s convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the “world that most of us inhabit” cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages.Yet here is the part that intrigued me:But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward “fundamentalists.” Thus, when listing the “deadly sins” that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world’s most influential newspaper condemns “the sin of religious certainty.”In other words, it’s against newsroom religion to be an absolutist and in this sense, the Isaiah Berlin sense, the press is a liberal institution put in the uncomfortable position of being “closed” to other traditions and their truth claims -- specifically, the orthodox faiths. At least according to Mattingly and his source:“Yet here’s the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths,” said Proctor. Its leaders are “absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right.”The apparent orthodoxy of forbidding all orthodoxies is a philosophical puzzle in liberalism since John Locke. Journalists cannot be expected to solve it. However, they might in some future professional climate (which may be around the corner) come to examine the prevailing orthodoxy about journalism -- how to do it, name it, explain it, uphold it, and protect it -- for that orthodoxy does exist. And it does not always have adequate answers.

In other words, most members of this elite journalistic priesthood are absolutely sure that they are speaking the absolute truth with they affirm that there are no absolute religious truths. So there.

Thus, they have trouble doing fair, balanced and even accurate journalism about these traditional religious believers that, in their heart of hearts, they believe are "crazy." They struggle, in other words, to follow their own professional doctrines on quality and diversity because of existing biases.

Oh, and, thus, many also struggle to see the religious liberty content of that beloved First Amendment. Now, are they beginning to doubt whether "crazy" religious people -- the bad religion people -- should have free speech, freedom of association and the free, public exercise of their religious beliefs (as opposed to the right to keep them tucked between their ears)?

Read all of this 2004 Rosen essay. In the standard newsroom religion, the First Amendment is the highest, the ultimate, the revealed truth of the journalism cult. But will that hold up? Are journalists now being tempted to start editing the First Amendment?

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

How will its doctrinal shift on gay marriage affect the Presbyterian Church (USA)?

Sunday, March 29, 2015


What do you think will happen to the Presbyterian Church (USA) now that it has voted to officially sanction gay marriage?


Maybe not much.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) announced March 17 that a nationwide referendum among regional bodies (“presbyteries”) has redefined marriage as “between two people, traditionally a man and woman” so same-sex couples can wed in church. This historic change will be very upsetting for a sizable minority but eruptions could be muted, for three reasons.

* First, some who consider Bible-based tradition a make-or-break conscience matter have already quit the PC(USA).

* Second, conservatives who remain risk loss of their properties if they leave.

* Dissenting clergy and congregations are told they won’t be forced to change their stand or conduct gay nuptials.

But Carmen LaBerge, president of the conservative Presbyterian Lay Committee, is wary. “If this is a genuine justice issue” and the traditionalists are “discriminatory hatemongers” as liberals believe, she wonders how long the church can “limp along between two opinions…. That’s a lot of tension for an organization to endure for long.”

While Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and evangelical Protestantism are resolute in opposition, the PC(USA) becomes the second major U.S. Christian denomination to sanction same-sex marriages. In 2005 the United Church of Christ endorsed them for secular law and asked congregations to consider the same policy.

The Episcopal Church is expected to redefine marriage at its June 25 – July 3 convention. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America allows leeway and eventually may give gay marriage formal endorsement. However, the United Methodist Church has consistently upheld a conservative belief defined in the 1970s that’s unlikely to change at next year’s conference or beyond, though liberals persistently defy their church’s teaching.

For the troubled PC(USA), will this decision finally conclude an anguishing debate and bring some healing?

Continue reading "How will its doctrinal shift on gay marriage affect the Presbyterian Church (USA)?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

CNN's Daniel Burke survived a GetReligion interview, but will his 'Friendly Atheists' story endure our critique?

Saturday, March 28, 2015

That there title is what is known as clickbait.

I know you people: You fancy a nice train wreck. You crave a good, no-holds-barred professional wrestling match. You love GetReligion the most when we're whacking some incompetent "journalist" (hey, how do you like those scare quotes, media person!?) over the head with a 2-by-4.

Sadly, today I come to praise CNN Religion Editor Daniel Burke, not to bury him. 

And I knew you wouldn't dare click if I said something vanilla like "CNN produces a really nice piece of religion journalism." (Yawn.)

Come to think of it, Burke didn't really write about religion, did he? If you read my 5Q+1 interview with him the other day, you know that he produced a 10,000-plus-word opus on atheists: 

5Q+1: @BurkeCNN on @CNNBelief, friendly #atheists and his next big #religion story:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) March 24, 2015

Hmmmm, "Religion editor can't find religion to write about." Maybe that's my angle.

I kid. I kid.

But something tells me that Burke has a healthy sense of humor:

I went on @GetReligion and lived to tell the tale: Srsly, thanks for the opportunity, @bobbyross

— Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) March 24, 2015

All joking aside, "The Friendly Atheists Next Door" is exceptional.

Let's start at the top:

Wake Forest, North CarolinaIt's two weeks before Christmas, which means the Shaughnessys are deep into their December rituals.Cookies have been baked and sprinkled with enough sugar to give a gingerbread man diabetes. A Christmas tree, sparkling with colored lights and surrounded by a small troop of Santa Clauses, stands in the corner of the living room, waiting.Harry and Charlotte Shaughnessy watch their children dip into a stash of ornaments: a Welsh flag from Grace's semester abroad; a bauble from the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where Todd is a freshman; a trinket embroidered with Brennen's name and 1998, the year the youngest Shaughnessy was born.Harry, nursing a rum and Coke, smiles at the sight of an even older ornament: a stocking that says "Charlotte and Harry, 1988," their first Christmas as a couple.In those days, the Shaughnessys were Catholic. They herded their children to Mass on Sundays and celebrated the sacraments, mostly. While Charlotte taught at the parish school and Harry started a computer consulting business, they tried, for the most part, to follow the church's doctrines.But one day a question cracked the foundation of Harry's faith, and the fissure slowly widened until the walls shivered and the roof shook and the whole damn house fell down. Like most demolitions, it caused a disturbance.

As Burke explained in our interview, the story took 10 months to produce and went through at least five drafts before he found "the right tone and narrative arc." 

Besides the massive amount of time and space that Burke and CNN devoted to telling this story, what impresses me about it?

First, I appreciate the tone, which is both conversational and respectful. You don't have to be an atheist (and I'm certainly not) to appreciate a journalist going out of his way to attempt to understand what makes a fellow human — or humans, in the case of the Shaughnessy family — tick. Not to go negative, but CNN could use this same kind of sensitivity on some other stories.

Second, I like that Burke keeps peeling back the onion. He digs below the surface as he explores the rising number of self-proclaimed atheists in America:

I've been following that ascension for years, watching America's "atheist awakening" burst forth from a few best-sellers to become a force with the potential to reshape the country's culture, politics and spirituality.But I am also interested in the small picture – less atheism as a mass movement and more the thoughts that flicker and burn through someone's mind as he forsakes faith. As a man like Harry begins to bend toward atheism, what are the turning points, and what happens after the last corner is turned?I talked to Harry for 10 months about those questions. And the more I asked, the more complex his answers became. I soon realized that Harry is not a typical atheist. He's part of a bevy of former believers who, while trying to raise atheist children and create secular communities, are tapping an unlikely source: the religions they left behind.

Third, I am impressed with the fair, transparent nature of CNN's story. Rather than a blunt statement like "The atheists' Catholic relatives refused to comment," Burke provides a detailed explanation that adds to the readers' understanding:

I'm going to pause the story here to make a short confession. "Confession" may not be the right word, exactly. I haven't done anything wrong. But there's something you should know.I asked Harry's parents and sisters multiple times to talk to me for this story. They declined. Last December, Harry's brother-in-law, Marc Hurtgen, offered this explanation in an email:"It is not out of animus toward Harry or anything he is involved in that we are not interested in being part of your article, but rather out of respect for him and the rest of the family and a hope for open (and uncontaminated) discussion about it sometime in the future, should Harry choose to."Because Harry's parents and sisters wouldn't talk to me, some of the conversations recounted in this story come only from the recollections of Harry and his immediate family, including his children. Interviewed separately, they all agreed on the essential details.I understand some of the reluctance from Harry's extended family. Heaven and hell aren't metaphors to Catholics like them, and their beliefs place people who don't share them – including Harry – on the wrong side of paradise.

That kind of first-person aside wouldn't work in every story. But it does this one.

Kudos to Burke and CNN, and congratulations to Melissa Nann Burke (a former 5Q+1 interviewee herself) on getting her husband back:

Putting the last touches on long article that my wife sarcastically calls my novel. Publishes Friday, God willing, or she may cut me loose.

— Daniel Burke (@BurkeCNN) March 17, 2015

If you've read this far, you are a true fan of journalism, and we appreciate you.

But if anybody asks, please tell them we trashed Burke's atheist story, and they really need to read our critique.

Categories: Main

Was King Richard III a 'bad guy' and does that have anything to do with the church?

Friday, March 27, 2015

The headline on this particular "WorldViews" feature in The Washington Post was crisp and to the point: "Was King Richard III a bad guy?" The problem, of course, is that there are at least three different ways to read those final two words.

Are we asking if he was a "bad guy," in the sense of playing the role of the villain in a mystery play? Or are we asking if he was simply "bad" in the sense that he wasn't good at what he did. Was he a bad, as in ineffective, king? Or maybe -- since much of the historical curiosity about Richard III is linked to his faith, his alleged deeds and his dynasty -- is the question whether or not he was "bad," in terms of being a sinner?

Here's the overture of the piece (sorry to be getting to this after the event itself):

The remains of England's King Richard III, who died in battle more than five centuries ago, will be re-interred ... at Leicester Cathedral. The planned burial has dominated headlines in Britain, where the fate of the late monarch's bones has been a source of national fascination since they were dug up in a Leicester parking lot in 2012 and identified using DNA testing a year later.Richard III was slain in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field, a moment immortalized by Shakespeare. In Richard III, the cornered king senses his own doom. "I have set my life upon a cast,/ And I will stand the hazard of the die," he intones, and then famously cries out: "A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse." But Richard never escaped on a trusted steed and was, instead, cut down by the soldiers of his rival, Henry Tudor, whose descendants would be Shakespeare's royal patrons.

Now, this piece has plenty of "Game of Thrones" style details in it. That's OK. What I was surprised to see was that it contained absolutely nothing about Richard III being a Catholic, in this era right before the Reformation changed the destiny of the Church of England.

I was surprised by this because I had, frankly, been rather pleased to see the amount of ink spilled on the religion angles of this story in many news outlets. If you wish, surf about in the following Google News pool and you'll see what I am talking about.

I think that it helped that Anglican and Catholic leaders were so upfront and cooperative, when it came to dealing with pivotal nature of Richard III and his demise. Then they worked together to produce events linked to the funeral that made it clear that both churches were involved in this dramatic story.

This led to some really fine coverage, such as the Religion News Service piece on the funeral details, written by Trevor Grundy. The key question in looking at all of these stories: Do the Franciscans play a role? As in:

Richard was the last king of England to die in battle while attempting to defend his throne from Henry VII. The latter went on to establish the Tudor dynasty, whose most memorable monarch was Henry VIII.After the battle, Richard’s remains were hastily buried by Franciscan monks.

That adds an interesting detail to the much-covered story of the discovery and verification of the king's remains. It also adds a nice detail to some of the remarks of Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales:

Nichols said offering a Requiem Mass for the repose of the soul of Richard III was “a profound and essential Christian duty” and that it is what the former king of England would have wanted.Richard III, who died nearly 50 years before the English Reformation, was a devout Catholic.The cardinal raised smiles among members of the large congregation when he said that we live in an age “when saints become villains and villains become saints.”

There was one reference in this simple story that puzzled me. When we talk about believers going on pilgrimage, isn't that usually to a site linked to the life and relics of saints? If that is the case, what do we make of this?

Now some speculate that Leicester could replace Canterbury as the hottest Christian pilgrimage spot in England.

How could that possibly be true, in light of the historic nature of Canterbury for centuries of pilgrims? Or are we talking about, well, "pilgrims" with quote marks? That is implied, methinks, by the word "hottest" in front of the phrase "Christian pilgrimage spot."

But has anyone suggested in any way that Richard III might literally become a saint? Does anyone plan to visit his grave and pray there, as oppose to meditate on the lessons learned in an age when the game of thrones was real?

Categories: Main

60 Minutes shows the faces and the tears of Iraqi Christians beseiged by ISIS

Friday, March 27, 2015

Every so often there’s a piece on TV that surprises you with its grace and pathos. Last Sunday’s 60 Minutes program on the persecution of Iraqi Christians by ISIS was one such program. This was the kind of mainstream media piece that I was calling for in my recent post "Why is the mainstream press (and Congress and churches) silent as Christians are literally being crucified?"

To do the show, Lara Logan -- the same correspondent who got so badly attacked in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011 -- goes to the Nineveh plains, a vast area east of Mosul including villages that have been there some 2,000 years. I was in the area in 2004 and it truly does feel like ancient Mesopotamia. One almost expects to hear the crunch of the boots of Sennacherib’s troops.

The filming is done in Erbil (a regional Kurdish city) and in some of the other Christian towns only a few miles from ISIS lines. One was Al Qosh, the burial place of the Old Testament prophet Nahum and one of the more pristine examples of two millennia of Christian habitation.

 If ISIS ever got up there, it’d be a catastrophe, as there’s an orphanage there within a new, elegant monastery. The script for the feature commences thus:

There are few places on earth where Christianity is as old as it is in Iraq. Christians there trace their history to the first century apostles. But today, their existence has been threatened by the terrorist group that calls itself Islamic State. More than 125,000 Christians -- men, women and children -- have been forced from their homes over the last 10 months.The Islamic State -- or ISIS -- stormed into Iraq's second largest city, Mosul, last summer and took control. From there, it pushed into the neighboring villages and towns across this region, known as the Nineveh Plains, a vast area that's been home to Christians since the first century after Christ. Much of what took almost 2,000 years to build has been lost in a matter of months.On the side of a mountain, overlooking the Nineveh Plains of ancient Mesopotamia, is the Monastery of St. Matthew. It's one of the oldest on earth.

The type of Christians in this place are Syriac Orthodox and Chaldean Catholics; species of Christian whom those in the West rarely get to meet. We get video of real people with names and faces and sorrows even if they belong to Christian denominations we’ve never heard of. And then there is an American Christian -- Brett Felton, an Iraq war veteran from Detroit -- who gets a segment to himself as to why some western Christians are coming back to Iraq to help Christians there.

I’m not suggesting the battle against ISIS is enough to unify eastern and western portions of Christianity that have been separated nearly 1,000 years. But at least it’s made the West care about their brethren in the East as Christians who’ve been low profile throughout the ages, but who’ve taken the brunt of Islamic fury for 1,400+ years.

If there is anything missing in this piece, it is a sense of outrage and a consistent grasp of the historical details about these communions.

This isn’t to say those who filmed it aren’t passionate about showing the cost of it all on the Christian community. The crew interviews a Christian refugee from Mosul who realized his 10-year-old daughter would become an ISIS bride unless he did something quick. He and his wife and child managed to flee to Erbil in a taxi. And I know it's tough to make what has become another refugee story fresh. But I didn't pick up what I know is happening over there; that people are still literally being crucified or enslaved in ways that resemble the African slave trade. Why couldn't those details have been represented in this report?

One of the clergy interviewed said the United States left Iraq way too early, resulting in this bloodbath. But talk of establishing a protected autonomous Christian enclave on the Nineveh plains was on the table years before we pulled out in 2011. The Americans didn't use any of their influence to build up protection for these Christians, but left them to the mercies of whoever should rule Iraq next.

And then along came ISIS.

Was this piece perfect? No. Was it a positive step, especially in the religion-reporting starved world of mainstream news on television. Yes.

Categories: Main

Carlton Pearson gains a cheerleader in the Dallas Morning News

Friday, March 27, 2015

He may have given up preaching hellfire, but Bishop Carlton Pearson still likes DMN-nation. The Dallas Morning News gave the Chicago-based minister a free 450-word ad when he spoke at a local church.

It's hard to blame the paper for having some fun. Pearson deserted classic Christian beliefs like sin, salvation and the danger of eternal punishment, pitching a universalist Gospel of Inclusion instead. Now he's a preacher turned pariah, although he's found new friends.

So Pearson is good copy. But did DMN have to turn cheerleader for him, right from the first paragraphs?

Bishop Carlton Pearson caught hell when he said there was no hell.The trailblazing minister, who was mentored by Oral Roberts and became an adviser to presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, lost nearly everything after 2000 when he said he had an epiphany: There is no such thing as eternal damnation. He even told The Dallas Morning News that the devil himself could be saved.Pearson was declared a heretic by fellow Pentecostal ministers and membership at his Higher Dimensions Family Church in Tulsa plummeted, as did cash offerings. He lost his homes and other possessions.

Which Pentecostal ministers would those be? Well, DMN mentions Oral Roberts, who died in 2009. His son, Richard, is still at the helm of the family business, though. And he's not hard to find. Why not quote him or other opponents, rather than what Pearson say they say?

That's just one of several unasked questions:

So he was a trailblazing minister? In what terms? Certainly not in advising presidents, which Billy Graham has done for decades, starting with Harry Truman.

* So he had an epiphany? How did he reach it? Who or what triggered it?

* "He's almost as popular as ever" and has "rebuilt his ministry." Any numbers? Sure, the News says Hollywood is planning a film on his life. Well, they made a TV movie about Jim Bakker, and most would say his popularity isn't what it was.

* How many showed up at Cathedral of Hope, the site of Pearson's appearance? That could be a handy measurement of his pull in Dallas.

* "Pearson, 62, said it is important to bridge humanity with divinity and not apologize for it." Howso?

Oh, and don’t miss this bon mot:

Cathedral of Hope has one of the nation’s largest predominantly gay and lesbian congregations.Pearson believes gays and lesbians will have a place in heaven, as well as others who some theologians say need redemption.

Ah, the coin of the realm for many mainstream media: If there's a possible connection with gays, work it. Except that it leaves hanging another question: "Who's arguing with that?" It would be hard to find anyone -- except maybe ingrown haters of the Westboro breed -- who says that gays or anyone else would be beyond redemption. The vast majority of Christians say that just about any sin can be forgiven. And for homosexuality, mainline Protestants say there's nothing to forgive.

The News dutifully interviews a couple of listeners on why they came to the local service and what they thought of Pearson. To no one's shock, they found him inspiring. Both liked the de-emphasis of a God, as one says, who was "so wrathful and so hateful."

Might be nice also to ask the views of a local pastor or two in a Church of God in Christ, the denomination to which Pearson once belonged. Their views might be a touch less benign.

Pearson has a full right to preach whatever he thinks is right. But as I've said before, a single viewpoint is not a controversy, just as a single horse does not a horse race make.

One funny thing is how Pearson wants to reject the Bible, yet embrace it. "I don’t mean to be disrespectful. I love the Scripture," he tells the News. "I hope you can get beyond this fear-based theology." But as the article ends, Pearson uses biblical language for his continuing self-discovery: "I had to die and be resurrected."

Wonder how he accepts and discards the book at the same time. But we won't find out in this story. Either Pearson wasn't asked, or the newspaper thought the reply wasn't worth a DMN.

Photo: Bishop Carlton Pearson preaching in 2006. Photo by Scott Griesse, via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Categories: Main

Has the Associated Press hierarchy officially changed its style for references to 'God'?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Flash back with me, if you will, to my recent GetReligion "guilt file" post on the religious-liberty showdown between an Assemblies of God chaplain, Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, and the principalities and powers at the modern U.S. Navy.

There was a reference in the Military Times account to a Navy document listing the chaplain's offenses, one of which was that he:

Told a female that she was "shaming herself in the eyes of god" for having premarital sex.

I raised a style question about that claim, asking if the lower-case "g" on the reference to "god" represented a change in news style for Gannett or if the modern Navy has now changed to using lower-case references to the Deity.

After posting that, I had a kind of nagging sensation that I was forgetting something. Perhaps there was another news item related to this Godtalk issue buried even deeper in my massive folder of GetReligion guilt material?

Sure enough, there was, one dating back to the Academy Awards coverage. A film critic friend of mine sent me this note:

Just noticed this Associated Press story transcribed Sean Penn's comments, only with God decapitalized in the phrase "thank god." Does New Atheist case style have traction in mainstream journalism? 

Now, the average reader would not have been look for religion in a story about the actor's "Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?" remarks when announcing that the best picture Oscar would go to "Birdman," and, thus, to Mexican-born director Alejandro Iñárritu. As it turns out, the two men are close friends and have a long history of lighting each other up with blunt comical remarks.

The God reference came near the end of the piece, as it ran at The Washington Post:

"I have absolutely no apologies," Penn said with calm resolve."In fact, I have a big (expletive) you for every...anybody who is so stupid not to have gotten the irony when you've got a country that is so xenophobic," he said. "If they had their way, you wouldn't have great filmmakers like Alejandro working in this country. Thank god we do."

Note that this was a spoken, not a written, remark. Thus, we can't say that Penn -- a very secular kind of guy -- used a lower-case "g," unless he announced it somehow and that was left out of the story. Perhaps Washington Post editors made the change?

Apparently not, since most of the other versions of this AP story that I found online contained a "Thank god" reference, rather than "Thank God."

So Godbeat professionals now have to ask if the AP style committee on high has changed this very old and very familiar entry in the bible -- lower-case "b" -- of journalism? After all, the book currently says:

gods and goddesses

Capitalize God in references to the deity of all monotheistic religions. Capitalize all noun references to the deity: God the Father, Holy Ghost, Holy Spirit, Allah, etc. Lowercase personal pronouns: he, him, thee, thou.

Lowercase gods and goddesses in references to the deities of polytheistic religions.

Lowercase god, gods and goddesses in references to false gods: He made money his god.

Now, to make matters more complicated, I did find another copy of this AP story that said:

"In fact, I have a big (expletive) you for every ... anybody who is so stupid not to have gotten the irony when you've got a country that is so xenophobic," he said. "If they had their way, you wouldn't have great filmmakers like Alejandro working in this country. Thank God we do."

Ah! So what news organization went to the trouble of restoring God to upper-case status? Alas, that would be, of course.

Just what we need, a journalism culture war over AP style for the Almighty.

Categories: Main

Covering religion news events in foreign lands? Think location, location, location

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Writing about events in a foreign land? Then keep in mind this retailing truism: Location, location, location. In journalese, that might read, what seems an obvious choice in one place can look illogical and even dangerous somewhere else.

When speaking religion journalese, that means Nigerian Anglicans are different from New York City Episcopalians, Baltimore Roman Catholics diverge from their co-religionists in Rio de Janeiro, and American-born Muslims do not think exactly like the Muslims of Saudi Arabia.

Likewise, the politics and beliefs of American Jews do not necessarily equate with the politics and beliefs of Israeli Jews. Assuming they do says more about the journalist than it does the subject.

Which brings me to last week's Israeli election that saw Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reelected, and handily so. Mainstream American media tended overwhelmingly to portray Netanyahu's reelection as a major blow to the (already dormant) Palestinian-Israeli peace process, as well as for just and peaceful communal interactions between Israel's Jewish and Arab populations (about one-fifth of all Israelis are Arab).

Netanyahu's 11th-hour campaign statements, of course, about there being no Palestinian state on his watch and his warning of a massive Arab turnout undermining Jewish Israel's hopes and dreams made that line of reasoning understandable. (Netanyahu has since clarified that he meant no Palestinian state under existing conditions. He also apologized to Israel's Arab citizens.

Major American Jewish leaders -- who tend to trend from centrist to center-left, just as American Jews in general tend to, most obviously on domestic issues -- also criticized Netanyahu and lamented the election's right-wing outcome.

But hold on there, said The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, one of America's premier English-language Jewish newspapers. The Los Angeles metro area, by the way, is home to an estimated 120,000 or so ex-pat Israelis, the second largest such community in the U.S., after the tri-state New York metro region.

"American Jews are disappointed with Israel's election? Tough luck," read the snippy headline that introduced a reaction analysis by Shmuel Rosner, the Journal's Israel-based correspondent (Rosner has considerable experience reporting on American Jews, as well). Here's a chunk of his story:

This happens every time the Israeli electorate decides to elect a government that is right of center.It happens every time an Israeli Prime Minister does something that does not bode well with the political affiliations of American Jews.When Ariel Sharon was elected in 2002, The Guardian reported that “Sharon divides world’s Jews”. When PM Ehud Olmert visited President Bush in the White House in 2006, the Jewish Forward editorialized that “for American Jews, this was one visit by an Israeli prime minister that drove home the distance between the two great Jewish communities, not their closeness."Today, the electoral victory of Binyamin Netanyahu is igniting headlines and editorials with the same tone. Jews dislike the fact that he was elected, and they dislike his statements and actions. Once again, talk of “distance” is the talk of the Jewish town.It is all a waste of precious time, and contributes nothing to having a fruitful dialogue between Jews.American Jews and Israeli Jews are indeed different in many things, political affiliation and beliefs included. Both communities will be better off if they understand that, and accept that.It was condescending and foolish for Israeli Jews to be disappointed with the decision of American Jews to vote for Barack Obama -- twice!It is no less condescending and foolish for American Jews to be disappointed with the decision of Israeli Jews to vote for Binyamin Netanyahu -- four times!

Summing up, Rob Eshman, Rosner's boss at the Journal, said this in a separate essay on the election:

Jewish life is composed of tribes -- Orthodox, secular, my shul, your country club, Ashkenzai, Ethiopian, etc.  But the two biggest tribes are American and Israeli. Different cultures, different languages, different reality.  Israel and America are the twin study of Jewish life: same birth, same heritage, but vastly different nurturing -- and so very different natures.

Question: If American Jewish leaders react like typical liberal Americans, how are non-Jewish American journalists (or Canadian; pick just about any Western nation), for whom Jews of any nationality may be equally exotic, supposed to understand and communicate these differences? 

Answer: Journalism 101. Don't generalize and don't presume to know. Read widely, travel, watch documentaries. Want to report on a foreign culture? Then really get to know it.

Granted, this is becoming hard to do on the company dime as U.S. journalism spends more and more of its diminishing resources on less financially stressing (and equally important) domestic stories. That pretty much leaves foreign reporting to the deeper-pocketed big guys. But even then, so much of what constitutes foreign reporting is heavy with war and calamity, and, unfortunately for us all, understandably so.

One last thought. How come -- given all the ink, pixels and video being spent on the Israel election and its consequences -- this non-election election story is largely ignored?

Here's a hint: Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is in the 11th year of his four-year-term.

Image via

Categories: Main

That Indiana 'religious freedom' bill just got even more controversial, and don't forget the scare quotes

Thursday, March 26, 2015

CNN did not get the memo.

I voiced concerns Wednesday about the prevalence of the term "controversial" in news coverage of that Indiana religious freedom bill passed this week.

Specifically, I questioned whether that overused modifier — which the Associated Press Stylebook says to avoid — favors the opposition in a debate pitting religious freedom vs. gay rights.

But Wednesday night, a GetReligion reader alerted me that CNN had ignored my advice.

"Note the tweet and lede of this story," the reader wrote. "Incredible."

The tweet:

.@GovPenceIN is set to sign into law a controversial "religious freedom" measure: @CNNPolitics

— CNN (@CNN) March 26, 2015

The lede:

Washington (CNN) Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is set to sign into law a measure that allows businesses to turn away gay and lesbian customers in the name of "religious freedom."The move comes as Pence considers a bid for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination — and just a year after Pence and socially conservative lawmakers lost their first policy battle against gay Hoosiers. In 2014 they had sought to amend Indiana's constitution to ban same-sex marriages — but were beaten back by a highly-organized coalition of Democrats, traditionally right-leaning business organizations and fiscally focused supporters of Pence's predecessor, former GOP Gov. Mitch Daniels.This year, though, the Republican-dominated state House and Senate both approved the "religious freedom" bill, and Pence plans to sign it into law in a private ceremony Thursday, his spokeswoman confirmed Wednesday afternoon.If Pence decides to mount a dark horse presidential bid -- which looks increasingly unlikely as candidates like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker court the same supporters he would need -- the "religious freedom" bill could give him a boost among GOP primary voters, especially in socially conservative states like Iowa.

Did you count the number of times the CNN political reporter used scare quotes on "religious freedom" in those first four paragraphs? (Three times, in case you didn't.)

Of course, the journalistic problem with the lede is the blatant editorialization favoring one side.

The converse would be a lede like this:

Washington (CNN) Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is set to sign into law a measure that prevents the government from trampling on the freedom of religion in the name of "gay rights."

As GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly pointed out Wednesday night, this is an issue on which the media seem to have a whole lot of trouble remaining impartial:

Is it possible to treat believers on both sides of these debates with respect, while quoting their beliefs accurately?Again and again, we say "yes." The question is who is still trying to do so. Right, Bill Keller?

Earlier Wednesday, a Religion News Service national correspondent tweeted:

Gene Robinson calls Indiana anti-gay law a free pass to legal discrimination.

— Cathy Lynn Grossman (@CLGrossman) March 25, 2015

That tweet prompted this response from a former GetReligionista:

.@CLGrossman I am shocked, shocked that an RNS reporter would call religious freedom legislation "anti-gay." Sheesh.

— Mollie (@MZHemingway) March 26, 2015

Is the Indiana measure a "religious freedom bill?" Is it an "anti-gay law?" Or is it a "religious objections bill" — as The Associated Press has deemed it?

All relevant questions, it seems to me.

But most crucial, for those who value a fair, unbiased press, is allowing both sides an equal opportunity to make their case. In the words of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics, journalists must "support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

Please, dear media, focus on providing balanced coverage that accurately reflects the true concerns and objections of everyone. For reporters wanting to understand the real fears of some Christians concerning their ability to live out their religious beliefs in America, Baptist Press just published a good backgrounder.

Paging Daniel Burke, Eric Marrapodi and all the other great CNN reporters with experience covering religion: Can you please make sure the right people get the memo this time?

Categories: Main

M.Z. Hemingway unloads on news coverage of 'religious liberty,' while tmatt debates one detail

Thursday, March 26, 2015

What we have here, gentle readers, is a take-no-prisoner headline, care of GetReligion emeritus M. Z. Hemingway at The Federalist.

You were expecting someone else?

Dumb, Uneducated, And Eager To Deceive: Media Coverage Of Religious Liberty In A Nutshell

Oh my, and if that isn't enough, there is this rather blunt -- some would say "brutal" -- subtitle to finish the job:

Most Reporters Are Simply Too Ignorant To Handle The Job

Now, if you have not read this long and very detailed piece yet, then head right over there and do so. But as you read it I want you to look for the one very important point in this article with which I want to voice my disagreement. No. It's not the George Orwell quote. That one was on the target, methinks.

Read it? Now, let's proceed.

Here is now the piece opens. Read this part carefully, because we will come back to it in a moment.

In the aftermath of the abominable media coverage of Arizona’s religious liberty bill, an editor shared his hypothesis that journalists care about freedom of speech and of the press because they practice them. And journalists don’t care about freedom of religion because they don’t.But one of the most interesting things about modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions, and religious liberty in general is that press freedom in America is rooted in religion.

Hold that thought. Here is the other passage that I want to make sure you see before I move on. This takes place in a detailed discussion of how the frame-game works in media bias, in part linked to -- yes -- "scare quotes." One of the stages is simply called "Opposition."

Note the key point in “Opposition,” which is that the media adopt the labels of one side in a dispute. This couldn’t be more common, which explains why “religious liberty” gets scare quoted but “same-sex marriage” does not. In most cases, the media only scare quote those things they think are highly debatable or untrue. So even though religious liberty is fairly well ensconced in the Constitution and in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and what not, it gets scare quotes. “Abortion rights,” which opponents believe is an oxymoron since no one actually has the right to take the life of another, even if the Supreme Court of the United States say otherwise? Well, missy, that’s settled law. And if you’re confused about it, you can ask the Susan G. Komen Foundation what we in the media do to people who don’t toe the line. We destroy them ... for fun.

Mollie's point is precisely the same as that made by the late David Shaw, the great (and pro-abortion rights) media critic for The Los Angeles Times. This massive piece in that newspaper -- try to imagine it being written today -- is a must bookmark for every writer who cares about the classic American model of the press.

And then, for an update:

For a particularly crafty look, here’s CNN redefining religious liberty not as “religious liberty” but as the “‘freedom’ to discriminate.” Brilliant. Even if, you know, terrifying and Orwellian. And I do mean Orwellian. Here he is on the matter:At any given moment, there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas, which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that, or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it . . . [And] anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, whether in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.

Now, where do I disagree? Simply stated, I do not believe in the "modern media’s deep hostility toward the religious, their religions and religious liberty in general."

You see, there are religious people and religious groups that modern journalists absolutely love. Those tend to be groups whose moral theology fits naturally with Woodstock and the editorial pages of The New York Times.

Visit the typical newsroom and you will find some people who worship on any given weekend. However, paging James Davison Hunter, they are highly likely to be in "progressive" flocks, as opposed to the "orthodox." Click here to see how Hunter defined those terms.

Now, I know very few journalists who oppose religion. It's certain religious beliefs and practices that make their palms sweat. That's the thesis at the heart the book that I wrote about back in 2001, pre-GetReligion, when addressing this very topic. My headline: "The Gray Lady's gospel crusade."

The best way to explain my position, which later ended up being discussed in Jay Rosen's classic PressThink essay, "Journalism Is Itself A Religion," is to run the whole thing.

So here goes:

Dr. Warren Hern had "just finished performing an abortion for the last patient of the morning" when he heard that James Kopp had been arrested in France for the 1998 murder of a Buffalo, N.Y., abortionist.Readers of the New York Times learned this symbolic detail in an op-ed piece entitled "Free Speech that Threatens My Life" in which Hern attacked the fiercest critics of his late-term abortion practice in Boulder, Colo. His column followed an editorial restating the paper's unwavering support for abortion rights, which underscored a page-one story about the arrest.This three-punch combination several weeks ago indicated that the Times wanted newsmakers and opinion shapers to realize that this was more than an abortion story. This was a parable about the meaning of life and truth. An earlier profile of the anti-abortion extremist in the newspaper's Sunday magazine made that absolutely clear."The question of Kopp's innocence or guilt is finally less absorbing than the consequences of his search for a higher good, sure and unchanging, to sustain him in a fallen world," concluded David Samuels. "It is a shared if unspoken premise of the world that most of us inhabit that absolutes do not exist and that people who claim to have found them are crazy."So take that, Pope John Paul II. And you too, Billy Graham.This remarkable credo was more than a statement of one journalist's convictions, said William Proctor, a Harvard Law School graduate and former legal affairs reporter for the New York Daily News. Surely, the "world that most of us inhabit" cited by Samuels is, in fact, the culture of the New York Times and the faithful who draw inspiration from its sacred pages."It is rare to see a journalist openly state what so many people at the Times seem to think," said Proctor, whose book "The Gospel According to the New York Times" analyzes themes in more than 6,000 articles from the past 25 years. "But it's true. They really are convinced that the millions of people out in Middle America who believe that some things are absolutely true and some things are absolutely false are crazy and probably dangerous, to boot."Proctor, meanwhile, is absolutely convinced that this affects the newspaper's work on moral and theological issues, ranging from abortion to education, from the rights of unpopular religious minorities to efforts to redefine controversial terms such as "marriage" and "family."

And now, the crucial issue:

But critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty.""Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."Naturally, believers in the flocks that are ignored or attacked tend to get mad and many try to ignore the Times. This is understandable, said Proctor, but precisely the opposite of what they should do. He urges the newspaper's critics to pay even closer attention to what it reports, while contrasting its coverage with a variety of other wire services and publications – across the political and cultural spectrum.Trying to avoid the New York Times is like fighting gravity, said Proctor. It is the high church, the magisterium, for the artists, journalists and thinkers that shape popular culture."If people tune all that out," he said, " how are they going to know how to defend their own beliefs? People need information and they need discernment. The first part of that statement is just as important as the second part. ... What are you going to do, try to pretend that news and information don't matter?"

Some religion, you see, is good and worthy of protection.

Some religion, however, is bad. As MZ demonstrates, it's pretty easy these days to figure out who most elite mainstream journalists (but not all) think belongs in which camp. Is it possible to treat believers on both sides of these debates with respect, while quoting their beliefs accurately?

Again and again, we say "yes." The question is who is still trying to do so. Right, Bill Keller?



Categories: Main

Christians in Syria: Los Angeles Times runs powerful, tragic report

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

How often does news really terrify you? Not just worry or concern, but ... well, like it affected a woman in this story out of Syria?

As Islamic State militants closed in on her village, Asmar Jumaa, an Assyrian Christian, couldn't shake a terrifying thought."I remembered what they did to the Yazidi women," said Jumaa, 22, recalling the fate of thousands of female adherents of the ancient sect kidnapped last summer when the Sunni Muslim extremists swept through northern Iraq. "I didn't want that to happen to us."She and eight family members, mostly women, were among several thousand Assyrian Christians who fled in late February as the militants advanced into dozens of largely Christian villages along the Khabur River in eastern Syria.

If only the international community paid as much attention to the plight of Christians in the Middle East as some media, like the Los Angeles Times, have done lately. If nations with a conscience were stirred to action a year or two ago, people like those in this indepth story might not be living in fear.

The article focuses on the purge of Christians along the Khabur River, who lived among Muslims and Yazidis in eastern Syria. The Times gets on the ground in Sheikhan, Iraq, and tells the story through the Jumaa family.

The paper notes the kidnapping of hundreds of Christians from the Khabur area, either by the Islamic State or the al-Qaida-lined Nusra Front. The Times even tacitly acknowledges its own lack of follow-up, along with that of other media:

Although the kidnappings made global headlines, the plight of several thousand who managed to escape hasn't drawn much notice in a region that has lately seen massive displacements, including the more than 500,000 Yazidis and Christians who fled the Islamic State rampage in the summer.As the Syrian civil war enters its fifth year, almost half of the people in the nation have fled their homes, one of the largest upheavals of humanity since World War II.More than 3 million Syrians are refugees in other countries, and an additional 7 million are displaced in Syria, according to United Nations figures.

Note how the story smoothly folds in the context of the multi-sided struggle in Iraq and Syria.  It reports how the Islamic State advanced along the Khabur and that "Christian self-defense home guards with rifles were no match for the heavily armed Sunni militants."

The Jumaas were rescued when Kurdish militiamen evacuated Tel Bas, where the family lived. Then, as the Times says:

The Jumaas eventually made their way into Iraq across the Tigris, following the path of tens of thousands of Yazidis who had fled the Sinjar mountains in the summer. One of Kenyas Jumaa's daughters who moved to Sheikhan in northern Iraq previously welcomed her kin.Sheikhan is a religiously mixed town whose skyline features the minarets of mosques, the crosses of Christian churches and the conical temples of the Yazidi sect, the majority here. The town, northeast of Islamic State-controlled Mosul, was largely abandoned in August as the militants advanced to within 10 miles or so. U.S.-led bombing helped push back the extremists; most residents of Sheikhan have since returned. Still, Islamic State's lines remain only about 20 miles away.

Later, the story says one of the Jumaa relatives was forced out of the Tabqa region, along with all other Christians, when the Nusra Front seized control there. In fact, many of the extended Jumaa family is now scattered: Sweden, Lebanon, Holland, Canada, New Zealand and Arizona. Kenyas Jumaa, the patriarch, says he hopes to emigrate with his immediate family as well.

The Times adds a dread déjà vu in pointing out that some of the Assyrians in the Khabur River region are descendants of Christians who fled in the 1930s to Syria, after many of them were murdered by Muslims in Iraq. But then the story puzzlingly calls it a case of "coming full cycle." It's not a cycle, in which the last event gives rise to the first. It's more like a repetition, with persecution repeating itself.

That's one of very few flaws in this tragically sensitive story. Another error, I believe, is identifying the Jumaas merely as ethnic Assyrians. It would have enlightened us readers to know that the Assyrians not only lived in Iraq and Syria long before Arabs; they also built a mighty Middle Eastern kingdom three millennia ago.

I think the Times erred also in portraying the Jumaas as what tmatt would call "generic Christians." It's true that their tormenters in Nusra and IS don’t care what kind; they just want them dead or gone. But whether they were Catholic or Chaldean or even Protestant, that would likely interest readers in Europe and North America.

But I don’t want to ride too hard on the few glitches in a powerful look at the tragedy that has fallen onto Middle Eastern Christians. Rather than dip into clichés, rather than stand off and quote military officials, the Times uses facts, quotes, history and sensitive writing. By the time we finish its 1,000 words, we've gained a brief but vivid glimpse of the price many people pay -- and are paying -- for the hatred of others.


Categories: Main

The Los Angeles Times does a number on Chief Justice Moore of Alabama

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

I first met Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore back in 1997 on a drive through Gadsden, a sleepy southern burg 56 miles north of Birmingham. Moore was only a circuit judge back then but he’d already gotten famous for refusing to take down a plaque from his courtroom walls that listed the Ten Commandments. I expected some hayseed country judge; what I found was a very sharp guy who could recite lengthy passages of law by heart and was obviously meant for greater things. Eighteen years later, he’s at the heart of a battle over whether state judges should grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples when the state constitution forbids it.

The Los Angeles Times recently weighed in on the debate through the eyes of a probate judge caught in the middle of the federal-state tussle. Its take on the situation was so one-sided, it fell over about halfway through. It starts:

About 9 o'clock the night of Feb. 8, Judge Tim Russell felt his phone vibrate, which seemed strange at that hour. It was his work phone.He and his wife, Sandy, had just finished the long drive from Birmingham, Ala., where they visited family, back home to Baldwin County, on the Gulf of Mexico. While she readied for bed, he stood reading an email from Roy Moore, the chief justice of Alabama's Supreme Court.In less than 12 hours, Russell and other county judges were to start granting marriage licenses to all couples, whether gay or straight.Russell finished reading the message and held it out to his wife."My God," he said.Russell lives with one foot in the past and one in the present, and talks as easily about either.Driving to lunch recently, he casually recalled his maternal grandmother of 13 generations ago, Rebecca Nurse. She was hanged in 1692 for practicing witchcraft, and became a central character in Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible."The modern relevance of that story isn't lost on Russell. "I think a great deal about our freedoms," he said.Religious freedoms, he said. And also equality under the law.

So here we have the Salem witch trials brought up as a hint of the direction where religious belief can go.

Sure enough, a few paragraphs later we hear of Confederate soldiers polluting the local water source. I’m surprised the writer didn’t bring up the Klan. It did bring up Moore’s ill-fated installation of a 5,280-pound Ten Commandments monument in the rotunda of the state judicial building in 2001 and how he was forced from office in 2003 after he defied a federal judge’s order to remove it. The Times says:

A special judicial court had removed Moore from his position after that showdown, but the people of Alabama immediately elected him back into it.

Excuse me? Moore spent nine years in exile. He sought the Republican nomination for state governorship in 2006 but lost badly to the incumbent in the primaries. He tried again in 2009 and again bombed in the primaries. He talked in 2011 of running for president but that got nowhere. Only in 2012 when he announced he’d try for his old position as chief justice did he win. So, what is the meaning of "immediately"?

The article goes on to describe Russell’s consternation:

Russell felt pulled in two directions: He feared that he would run afoul of the Alabama Constitution if he issued licenses to gay couples. And he worried he’d break the U.S. Constitution if he didn’t.

By this point, one wonders: Did anyone edit this piece? The U.S. Constitution has no provision for same-sex marriage unless the U.S. Supreme Court decides it does and they haven’t ruled on this yet.

Further down, the knives come out:

Moore was content, or even eager, to martyr himself as a judge because he has his eye on higher elected positions. He did not return calls for comment.Russell's openness on this point reveals just how little faith the lower judges have in Moore's motivation: "Oh yeah," he said. "He's looking for either a governorship or senatorship."

Who says Moore has his eye on a higher office? Only Russell? I see no other sources listed. Moore is 68 years old. The chance of him trying for anything else after a decade of failed attempts is incredibly slim.  Mind you, other than the perfunctory phone calls to Moore’s office, the reporter does not quote one person in Moore’s defense.

Here we go again: You have to make an attempt to get articulate opinion on both sides. If Moore won’t talk, he has friends that will. Basic Journalism 101, folks.

The article veers in a bizarre direction at the end where it talks about Russell’s faith:

Beyond those decisions, though -- beyond legalities -- there's also the question of his Catholicism, Russell said. Previously religion guided his thinking on marriage: It's between one man and one woman, he believed.But the current debate has forced Russell to do to himself what he does to couples and estates and other subjects every day: He is dividing his own mind. Separating the biblical and the constitutional. Cleaving the opinions he holds in his church pew from the ones he issues from his courthouse bench.Is it possible to separate the two entities completely? One sort of union for the church and another for the state. One for religion and one for the law. Would he support that?

Again, same-sex marriage is not “constitutional” at this point and it is inaccurate to say it is. And some Catholics have a word for a "personally opposed" fellow church members who believe in church doctrine for their private lives but cave when it comes to applying it in a public forum. It’s called being a hypocrite. At this point, the editors of the Times are openly cheer leading for this cafeteria approach to Catholic life. Perhaps the current editors in Los Angeles should click here and read some wisdom from an earlier editor?

I finished this piece feeling no respect for Tim Russell, as his views were presented by The Times. The premise of the article was interesting but the result belongs in the trash.

Categories: Main

Just what's so 'controversial' about that Indiana religious freedom bill passed this week?

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Today's word of the day: "controversial."

If you've seen the headlines, ledes and tweets related to a religious freedom bill passed by Indiana lawmakers this week, you've likely seen that adjective attached to it:

Breaking: The Indiana House has passed the controversial religious freedom bill.

— IndyStar (@indystar) March 23, 2015

Indiana House passes controversial 'religious freedom' bill

— Reuters U.S. News (@ReutersUS) March 23, 2015

Indiana House passed a controversial religious freedom bill, the latest in a larger debate

— Wash Post Faith (@washpostfaith) March 23, 2015

Religious discrimination or religious freedom? #Indiana's House passes a controversial bill:

— Religion NewsService (@RNS) March 24, 2015

Indiana Gov. Mike Pence is poised to sign yet another controversial anti-gay bill

— Talking Points Memo (@TPM) March 25, 2015

Monday's lede from the Washington Post:

A controversial religious freedom bill that would protect business owners who want to decline to provide services for same-sex couples was passed by Indiana’s State House today, the latest in a larger battle over same-sex marriage and rights.The bill reflects a national debate over the dividing line between religious liberty and anti-gay discrimination. The question of whether the religious rights of business owners also extend to their for-profit companies has been a flashpoint as part of a larger debate over same-sex marriage. For instance, the bill would protect a wedding photographer who objects to shooting a same-sex wedding.The Indiana House voted 63 to 31 to approve a hot-button bill that will likely become law, and Republican Gov. Mike Pence said he plans to sign the legislation when it lands on his desk. The state Senate’s version of the bill would prevent the government from “substantially burdening” a person’s exercise of religion unless the government can prove it has a compelling interest and is doing so in the least restrictive means.Supporters say the measure supports religious freedom while opponents fear discrimination against LGBT people. The push towards this kind of legislation comes as same-sex marriage becomes legal across the country. In September, a federal court ruling struck down bans on same-sex marriage in Indiana and other states.

We've previously tackled the typical journalistic framing on this topic (e.g., is "deny service" or "refuse service" really the right way to describe a baker who 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?). The Post, by the way, deserves praise for the relevant, easy-to-understand example of the wedding photographer in the second paragraph.

Rather than revisit the service issue again today, however, my question relates to the framing of the bill as "controversial."

The Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's Bible" — offers this guidance concerning that term:

controversialAn overused word; avoid it.

Also in the stylebook:

noncontroversialAll issues are controversial. A noncontroversial issue is impossible. A controversial issue is redundant.

So why do so many news reports refer to the Indiana bill as "controversial" (with AP being a notable exception)?

Is use of that term a simple matter of stale, clichéd writing? Or does it signify concern on the part of the media organization — a sort of red flag to the audience?

A mainstream journalist involved in the coverage responded that the bill is "definitely controversial." That journalist allowed that a different term — such as "divisive" — might be suitable but maintained, "I don't think controversial is untrue."

On the other hand, Greg Scott, vice president for media communications for the Alliance Defending Freedom, sees bias in such wording:

A bill in Indiana that was passed by a 4-to-1 margin in the state senate, a 2-to-1 margin in the state house and that will likely be signed by the governor in short order would more properly be described as “popular” than “controversial” if the terms mean anything. AP is obviously correct that the word is overused. But it should add “frequently abused” and “misused” if it looks honestly at how these freedom protection bills and laws are being covered.“Controversial” seems to be defined now as “anything the elite institutions don’t like.”You didn’t see “controversial” attached to: the passage of Obamacare (it was “historic”), the Supreme Court striking down DOMA (it was a “historic victory”), Obama’s executive order on immigration (it was “an appeal to a nation’s compassion”), or the PC(USA) spiraling further into apostasy (it was a “favorable vote” and “monumental”). You get the point.

Scott obviously is an advocate with strong opinions on one side of the debate.

Nonetheless, I believe he makes an important point concerning journalistic framing: Words matter.

Media truly wanting to provide impartial reporting must be extra-careful that the adjectives they choose don't signal — either intentionally or unintentionally — an association with a particular side's point of view.

Is the Indiana bill controversial? It depends on which side you ask.

Categories: Main

Military Times team forgets to ask a crucial question about that Navy SEAL chaplain

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Time to take a quick dip into my folder of GetReligion guilt, where some important stories have been calling for my attention. In particular, I wanted to note that debates about military chaplains, always a controversial church-state subject, have flared up once again in the news.

At the center of the debate this time around is Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder, a chaplain who has in the past handled the rather difficult challenge of keeping up with Navy SEAL units. Now, a Military Times article notes that he may be tossed out of the Navy after 19 years for "allegedly scolding sailors for homosexuality and premarital sex." Readers are told:

Lt. Cmdr. Wesley Modder was given a "detachment for cause" letter on Feb. 17 after his commanders concluded that he is "intolerant" and "unable to function in the diverse and pluralistic environment" of his current assignment at the Navy Nuclear Power Training Command in South Carolina.Modder denies any wrongdoing and is fighting the dismissal with attorneys from the Liberty Institute, which advocates for religious expression in the military and in public institutions. Modder has served more than 19 years and could lose his retirement benefits if the Navy convenes a board of inquiry and officially separate him before he completes 20 years of service.

As often happens in these stories, the crucial question of what actually happened in these encounters between the chaplain and the soldiers making complaints is hard to discern, since the details all come from the accusers. Also, military chaplains treat the details of these one-on-one encounters as completely confidential (even chaplains who are not in traditions that include Confession).

Thus, the Gannett newsroom notes that the Navy's letter of complaint included offenses such as:

Told a female that she was "shaming herself in the eyes of god" for having premarital sex.Told another student that homosexuality was wrong and that "the penis was meant for the vagina and not for the anus."Suggested to a student that he, Modder, had the ability to "save" gay people."Berated" a student for becoming pregnant while not married.Commanders felt that allowing vulnerable sailors to be counseled by Modder is "a recipe for tragedy," according to the letter.

Yes, the word "god" is lower case in the article. Is that now Gannett style, or Navy style?

Meanwhile, one crucial fact is missing from this story -- an it's a big one. The story calls Modder a "Pentecostal" pastor, but failed to note that his actual denominational affiliation is the Assemblies of God. The story never quotes an Assemblies official about the denomination's views on this controversy.

If members of the Military Times team had done that, I assume that they would learn that Modder, as is the case with so many chaplains today, was caught between the doctrines now being enforced by the armed services and those he has taken vows to defend in his church.

Thus, the question that isn't asked in this story is the most important question: Is it possible to be an Assemblies of God chaplain in the modern military? Yes, and the flip side of that question is just as valid, in light of the realities on the ground with military chaplains serving a wide variety of soldiers, not just members of their own faith. Is that fair to the soldiers?

As I wrote in a post on this topic back in 2006:

Are military chaplains appropriate? Are they even legal? Another question looms in the background: Is it legal to force soldiers to listen to prayers and/or evangelistic messages by clergy who are not of their own faith? Here at GetReligion, I have been asking: Is it legal to require chaplains (if they want to be promoted) to voice prayers that require them to water down, if not violate, the doctrines of the faith in which they are ordained? ...This raises all kinds of questions, but they are questions that are already haunting military life. What happens on battlefields? On submarines with limited space? In military hospitals? Will there be no clergy in those locations at all? ...These are tough questions, but they are no tougher than the questions raised by the current system, in which one base may include soldiers representing a dozen or more faiths. How many chaplains can the military afford to fund for any one location so that no one is offended?

Now, once the Military Times team recognized that Modder is an Assemblies of God chaplain, and thus reporting to his denomination as well as the military, it needed to deal -- at least briefly -- with another key subject. As The Daily Kos noted last year, with horror, roughly one-third of all military chaplains are from evangelical or charismatic denominations and information gathered by the Air Force indicates that 87 percent of the people seeking to become military chaplains are applying from evangelical seminaries.

In other words, it is impossible for military leaders to continue the current military chaplains system without the Assemblies of God, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Presbyterian Church in America, etc., etc. Clergy in other doctrinally traditional flocks -- such as the Roman Catholic Church or Eastern Orthodox Christianity -- face similar clashes between their ordination vows and the doctrines of the new Pentagon.

Stay tuned. Meanwhile, the Military Times team has a hole to fill in its coverage of this ongoing story.

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