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Updated: 48 min 38 sec ago

Hot-button question: Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?

3 hours 32 min ago


How can we get people informed about the results of academic biblical scholarship, work that completely undermines the ordinary popular conception of Christianity and faith? Why are Christians not interested in the truth?


“What is truth?”, Pilate asked Jesus. Or did he? America’s “Jesus Seminar” claimed the Roman tyrant never spoke those famous words and, for that matter, much else in the New Testament never happened either. Norman worries that people aren’t “informed.” Sunday School and CCD may not teach  doubts, but people who don’t know about media promotion of biblical disputes must be living under a rock.

Various degrees of skepticism usually characterize the “higher criticism” conveyed at U.S. colleges. The Jesus Seminar represented the radical wing. Even liberals scoffed at the theatrics when Seminar panelists voted on the authenticity of each verse. The verdict: “82 percent of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him” while there was a “16 percent historical accuracy rate” for the 176 recorded events in Jesus’ life.

At least Jesus was indeed crucified, the Seminar said. However, two panelists doubted he even existed. They had to discount not only the Gospels but Paul’s letters 20 years after the crucifixion, Roman and Jewish writers (Pliny, Suetonius, Tacitus, Josephus), and other documents.

Skepticism is nothing new and originated in Europe’s “Enlightenment” era, especially in Germany. Some landmarks: (1) The 19th Century pioneer David F. Strauss strips supernaturalism and history from the Gospels while others divorce the “historical Jesus” from the church’s “Christ of faith.” (2) In the 20th Century, Rudolf Bultmann’s “demythologized” New Testament makes the actual Jesus virtually unknowable. (3) “Neo-orthodoxy” challenges liberal self-confidence as Europe slides into the Nazi pit. (4) Ernst Kasemann and others launch a chastened post-war “new quest” for Jesus. (5) Though Catholicism begins the 20th Century proclaiming strict conservatism, after the Second Vatican Council influential experts like Raymond Brown and John Meier embrace judicious liberalism.

Chronology is key. For example, scholars’ consensus says the history of church origins in the Book of Acts was written in the 1st Century, but radicals push it much later, then treat the narratives as fiction. On the opposite end, John A.T. Robinson contended that the Gospels must have been written very early because the writers show no awareness of the cataclysmic destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in A.D. 70.

However, most agree the Gospels were compiled somewhat later, four to six decades after Jesus’ crucifixion, drawing upon oral and, presumably, written traditions. (Paul’s letters came beforehand.) Liberals promote “pseudepigraph” that the early church barred from the Bible as spurious. But with the possible exception of the “Gospel of Thomas” these came much later than the four Gospels, which remain the chief 1st Century sources. Compared with other ancient writings, there’s a remarkably early and large trove of New Testament manuscripts (with differing details that perplex translators but don’t disturb the over-all picture). Some 50 major New Testament texts and 5,000-plus fragments survive from the 2nd Century onward.

Modern critics apply various criteria to say whether a specific Gospel story was early or late, authentic or embroidered or wholly invented. E.P. Sanders’ 1966 dissertation undercut some rules, showing that during transmission some stories became more Jewish but others less Jewish, some longer but others shorter, etc. One major criterion, “dissimilarity,” accepts items about Jesus that lack parallels in 1st Century Judaism and the early church. That results in suspicion toward non-dissimilar materials and cuts off Jesus from fellow Jews (and the first Christians) whereas recent scholarship insists he was fully Jewish.

Some think discrepancies harm New Testament credibility.

Continue reading "Is the history contained in the New Testament reliable?", by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Mainstream media take aim at Tennessee law protecting counselors

7 hours 2 min ago

Tennessee passed a law this week that allows counselors to refer out a patient based on a counselor's personal beliefs, and news media, of course, are all over it.

The law itself sounds pretty simple: "No counselor or therapist providing counseling or therapy services shall be required to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with the sincerely held principles of the counselor or therapist; provided, that the counselor or therapist coordinates a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy."

But numerous accounts, like one by Reuters, have been raising alarms: "Tennessee's Republican governor on Wednesday signed a law allowing mental health counselors to refuse service to patients on 'sincerely held principles,' the latest in a string of U.S. state measures criticized as discriminatory against the gay community."

Reuters goes on to quote Gov. Bill Haslam's denial:  "The substance of this bill doesn't address a group, issue or belief system." He compares it to other professionals like doctors and lawyers who may refer a client to common else in case of a conflict of principles. But by then, Reuters has already planted its sarcasm quotes and framed the law as yet another attack on gays.

Lending force to the framing is the American Civil Liberties Union, which says the law assumes "that religion can be used as a free pass to discriminate" -- although religious language has been stricken from the law.

Also instructive are two stories by NewsChannel 5 in Nashville. The breaking story quotes Haslam extensively. Three hours later, the follow-up majors on gay objections.

The Washington Post attempts a broader story but fails, starting with the lede: "Tennessee’s Republican governor said Wednesday that he signed a bill into law that allows mental health counselors to refuse to treat patients based on the therapist’s religious or personal beliefs." As you know, the law doesn't mention religious beliefs, although a previous version did.

The Post then throws in an unattributed "sources say" paragraph:

The American Counseling Association called the legislation an "unprecedented attack" on the counseling profession and said Tennessee was the only state to ever pass such a law. Opponents say the legislation is part of a wave of bills around the nation that legalizes discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people.

WaPo does name a spokesman for the American Counseling Association, Art Terrazas, who says how "profoundly disappointed" he is and how the law will harm clients. But the 500-word article has some yawning gaps.

First, it puts all the focus on the governor, as if there's no legislature. Second, it quotes Haslam saying he consulted experts on both sides; but it doesn't say who they are, let alone ask any of them.

Third, the Post has Haslam saying the law was a response to a 2014 change in the ACA code of ethics, which "took away therapists’ ability to make decisions based on their values." How? Doesn't say.

One of the better stories appeared in the Nashville Tennessean. The state's newspaper of record provides an examination from several perspectives.

The Tennesseean gives the governor ample space to speak for himself:

"There are two key provisions of this legislation that addressed concerns I had about clients not receiving care. First, the bill clearly states that it ‘shall not apply to a counselor or therapist when an individual seeking or undergoing counseling is in imminent danger of harming themselves or others.’ Secondly, the bill requires that any counselor or therapist who feels they cannot serve a client due to the counselor’s sincerely held principles must coordinate a referral of the client to another counselor or therapist who will provide the counseling or therapy," he said."The substance of this bill doesn’t address a group, issue or belief system. Rather, it allows counselors — just as we allow other professionals like doctors and lawyers — to refer a client to another counselor when the goals or behaviors would violate a sincerely held principle. I believe it is reasonable to allow these professionals to determine if and when an individual would be better served by another counselor better suited to meet his or her needs."

For another, the Tennesseean reports how legislators changed the wording on the bill from "sincerely held religious belief" to "sincerely held religious principles" of the counselor.

The 1,300-word story also quotes backers and detractors at roughly equal length. ACA spokesman Art Terrazas says the law "disproportionately affects LGBTQ Tennesseans seeking counseling." He warns darkly that Haslam "has ignored the lessons learned in North Carolina, Georgia and Mississippi" -- an apparent reference to bad press and business boycotts.

Among the backers are David Fowler, president of Family Action Council of Tennessee. He says the law shows that " still room in Tennessee for counselors who have a belief system that informs everything they do, including the kind of counsel they believe they can in good conscience provide to their clients."

Finally, the Tennesseean says what the ACA changed -- something WaPo didn’t say:

The measure stemmed from a 2014 change in the American Counseling Association’s code of ethics aimed at preventing discrimination against people in need of counseling services. The state licensing board for professional counselors and marital and family therapists incorporates the ACA’s ethics code into its rules and regulations — a violation of which subjects licensees to sanctions.

It's a good article despite a couple of flaws. One is divulging the psychologist's religion (Presbyterian), but no one else's. Perhaps it's because he directs a Christian-based counseling service. But if the original motivation for the law is alleged to be religious, as some opponents have charged, wouldn't it be fair to give the religions of all the quoted sources?

At least the Wall Street Journal gets the story right, both in fact and tone:

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a law Wednesday that allows professional counselors to use personally held principles as reasons to refuse clients and refer them on, projecting his state into the national debate over measures affecting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.Opponents of the Tennessee law, including the American Counseling Association, view it as a first-in-the-nation tool that will codify discrimination against the LGBT community. Supporters have defended the law as a nondiscriminatory measure that will protect counselors who provide help for people dealing with issues ranging from marital concerns to drug dependency.

Lookit that: no slant, no sarcasm quotes, plus context and balance. All in the first two paragraphs. The rest of the article is like that, even giving the reason for the law: "because the ACA revised its code of ethics in 2014 to add language saying counselors should refrain from referring clients based on the counselors’ own values, attitudes, beliefs and behaviors."

On the other side, WSJ cites opponents' concerns about referrals for people in rural areas. It adds an objection from the Human Rights Campaign that a counselor may not want a client who is considering conversion to another religion. (The story should allowed a backer of the law to answer that, though.)

The Journal adds some context with bills elsewhere, though I'm not sure they belong together. In Mississippi, the law is about religious objections to serving gays. In North Carolina, it was about transgender people in rest rooms. And in Missouri, it was about catering to same-sex weddings (and the bill died in committee this week).

Still, the newspaper did a fine job of explaining the controversy in a mere 700 words or so -- even with the context taking up half the story. Imagine what more local media could have accomplished, if they'd tried.

Thumbnail: Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam at the National Governors Association Education, Early Childhood and Workforce Committee meeting in Washington, D.C., in 2012. Public domain photo by Lance Cheung for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, via Wikimedia (CC-By-2.0).


Categories: Main

Do YOU have lots of questions about the NCAA and traditional religious schools?

10 hours 10 min ago

If you listen carefully to this week Crossroads podcast (click right here to do so), you can hear question after question passing by, questions that simply cannot be answered at this time -- yet questions that could be hooks for major news stories later on.

Here's the big question, one that I asked on a radio show several months ago and discussed again in a post this week: Will the principalities and powers at the NCAA choose (as is their right as leaders of a private, voluntary association) to eject religious private colleges and universities that (as currently is their right as private, voluntary associations) ask students, faculty and staff to live under lifestyle covenants that, among other doctrines, affirm that sex outside of traditional marriage is sin?

OK, let's back up and ask an important question that precedes that monster: Will major American businesses -- the economic giants that sponsor events like bowl games and the hoops Final Four -- hear the cries of LGBT activists and begin pressuring the NCAA to make this change?

Maybe there is a question in front of THAT one, such as: At what point will ESPN or some other force in the entertainment industrial complex begin what amounts to a "go to the mattresses" campaign to force this question on the NCAA?

So, the questions keep coming.

What will the leaders of the big religiously conservative private schools that are in the cross hairs on this issue -- think Baylor and Brigham Young -- do when forced to make a choice between the faiths that define them (and religious supporters with children and money) and the prestige and money connected with big-time athletics?

Yes, host Todd Wilken pressed me -- as a Baylor alum -- to offer an educated guess on what I thought Baylor leaders would do when push comes to shove.

I told him that I really didn't know, then waffled a bit by saying that it will be very hard for Baylor to walk away from the Big 12. My hunch is that Baylor will try to compromise, in part to save it's professional schools (think law and medicine) as well as sports. Will compromise work? I think not.

Besides, Baptists have never been big on signing detailed doctrinal covenants. Will that have to change in the future with current legal trends?

This issue raises -- in light of recent headlines -- another question or two. How seriously is Baylor taking its community covenant these days, in terms of sex outside of marriage? Gay or straight? Athletes or ordinary students?

Moving on. While big schools will get the headlines, it's important to remember that most religious-heritage colleges and universities are smaller schools.

Thus, here's another important question that lots of journalists will want to pursue, especially if there is a lower-division NCAA school in their zip codes: If kicked out of the NCAA, will we see the formation of a smaller sports association for doctrinally defined schools? Did St. Benedict have any advice on athletics?

OK, there are so many questions. Let's turn to a journalism question.

Will the vast majority of mainstream journalists continue to act as if they believe that people are clinically insane if they truly believe -- and act as if they believe -- that sex outside of marriage is sin?

This question is crucial, because many Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others insist that they believe that homosexual acts are sinful, but that the temptations of same-sex orientation are not sinful. Thus, since these schools have doctrinal covenants stating that all sex outside of marriage is sin, they say that it's fine for gay and straight students to be celibate while attending their schools. That's appears to be a #LOL statement for most journalists, based on the coverage out there.

But wait, don't students have a Constitutional right to have sex? Isn't that's somewhere in Justice Antony Kennedy's famous prose about the "right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life"?

Actually, that isn't the real question here, since no one forces students to sign on the bottom line and attend these religious private schools (a fact rarely mentioned in news reports). Thus, is the actual question here whether these kinds of religious schools will continue to have a right, under the U.S. Constitution, to exist and to define their communities according to the doctrines of their faiths? Or will they be able to have doctrines, but not the right to act on them or to defend them in practice (see the Health and Human Services mandate wars)?

Or, wait, is it safe to assume that they will have the right to exist, but not the right to compete as members of the NCAA? Is there a right to compete in the NCAA? Of course not.

I know, I know. We have come full circle.

Oh, and this just in from NCAA land:

After months of hinting that it would use its financial clout to take a stand against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, the NCAA on Wednesday made it official.

The organization's Board of Governors, at its quarterly meeting in Indianapolis, adopted a new requirement for sites hosting or bidding on NCAA events in all divisions -- from Final Fours to educational conferences. Those host sites must "demonstrate how they will provide an environment that is safe, healthy and free of discrimination, plus safeguards the dignity of everyone involved in the event," the NCAA said.

For now, though, the NCAA is not elaborating on what that means. The board has directed the national office to finalize details of the policy and how it would be implemented, spokeswoman Stacey Osburn said.

Take that, Bible Belt.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Sharia divorce: Vancouver Sun dives into what Muslim immigrants are really talking about

Thursday, April 28, 2016

It’s really a shame that The Vancouver (BC) Sun hides its religion coverage under the proverbial bushel. Under 10 portals, the newspaper has dozens of drop-downs for all manner of specialties, such as “wine country” under the “life” portal.

I see nothing to help readers find religion news. I even checked under “staff blogs” under the “news” portal, but could not find Doug Todd, the staff writer who covers religion along with migration and diversity.

Folks south of the border appreciate his insight into the religion of “Cascadia,” the area of North America that covers coastal Oregon, Washington and British Columbia. A Seattle blog,, did a very good interview with him recently about spirituality in this region. 

 Fortunately, I know I can always locate Doug Todd’s columns here and that’s where I found his fascinating take on how divorce under sharia law fares in a western country.

The answer: Not so well. This passage is long, but essential.

“In the event of a separation, the defendant agrees to deliver to the plaintiff the following: I. One volume of the Holy Qur’an; II. One crystal sugar stick; III. One basket of narcissus flowers; IV. 3,000 gold coins.”                — Delvarani v. Delvarani, B.C. Supreme CourtLawyer Zahra Jenab often comes face to face with couples embroiled in acidic disputes over a small fortune in gold.The West Vancouver family lawyer, who was born in Iran and raised in Canada, works frequently with ex-partners wrangling over thousands of gold coins, which may or may not have been given by the husband in a dowry under Islamic Shariah law.Canadian courts are increasingly being called upon to rule on religious laws of the Middle East and Asia. But they’re finding it tricky to distribute family property across nations and in an era when dowries contain symbolic promises of Qur’ans along with valuable coins.Jenab has made her way through hundreds of trans-national divorces in which Canadian family law clashes with traditions from Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, East Africa and East Asia, and her desk is piled with yellow case files.When separating immigrant women and men ask her why their divorces can’t follow the rules of their old country, Jenab has to tell them: “Because we’re in Canada, now.”One B.C. Supreme Court divorce case hinged on an estimated $750,000 in gold coins minted by the Central Bank of the Islamic Republic of Iran.Estranged couples can be devastated when they discover the religious laws of their homelands don’t apply in Canada.

The article goes on to describe how sharia property law might hold water back in Iran, Pakistan, etc., but it has no standing in the West.

At issue is the dowry, which the woman is supposed to get back from the husband if the marriage fails. Back in the old country, the gold coins that the bride’s family paid the groom –- which range in value from $30,000 to $75,000 –- don’t really transfer in the Canadian economy. The groom ends out winning, as Canadian judges don’t make them pay back anywhere near the value of the coins.

Under sharia law, the husband can deny his wife a divorce. But in Canada, the woman can go ahead and get a divorce anyway. Sharia law also favors the man when it comes to the custody of children; that is, the wife has custody until the child is 7, at which point the husband gets custody. The mother definitely loses custody if she remarries. If either partner belongs to a religion other than Islam, they also lose custody. Read here for particulars but Canadian law doesn’t follow such rules.

As the piece concludes:

Many of Jenab’s clients, women and men, end up wanting both the benefits of Canada’s relatively equal family law and the advantages of their traditional religious culture.They’re often stunned or angry, she said, when they learn Canadian family law — including the ideal of parents sharing joint custody of children — doesn’t line up with their religious customs.

I wish more folks other than the lawyer had been interviewed, as I’m curious as to why an immigrant Muslim couple would think that sharia law holds water in Canada. We know that western law carries no weight in many Muslim countries overseas. The 1991 film "Not Without My Daughter" tells such a story of an American woman married to a Muslim who lost all custodial rights to their daughter once they traveled to Iran to visit his relatives.

(The woman ended up sneaking herself and the daughter over the border into Turkey but other non-Muslim women in Islamic countries haven't been so lucky. The daughter in "Not Without My Daughter" is now 36 and just came out with a book about her ordeal only a few months ago.)

In an earlier piece, Todd said no official sharia courts exist in North America, unlike the UK, where there's 85 such institutions. Canada’s largest source country for Muslim immigrants is Pakistan where sharia law is very much in effect and where people believe in honor killings and in the death penalty for those who convert out of Islam. “That, to put it mildly, is not good news,” he wrote.

No kidding.

Todd has covered other Muslims vs. Canadian culture topics such as this piece about an immigrant fighting for the right to wear a niqab and more.

Very few religion reporters have the contacts he has. Other than articles about laws in seven U.S. states banning sharia, I’ve not seen much written south of the border about the kind of things Todd writes about. I found one RNS piece about divorce and sharia law. Since one-third of Muslim marriages in the United States end in divorce, this is definitely something Muslims are discussing around the dinner table. That article came to the same conclusion as did Doug Todd’s piece: Any bride or groom counting on sharia to guard their assets in case of a divorce will have a rude awakening.

Following sharia-observant folks in the non-sharia West is a specialty topic for a specialty beat and I’m grateful Todd’s keeping his ear to the ground on this one. What's happening in U.S. areas rich with Muslim immigrants such as New York, southern California and Houston? One lengthy 2013 piece in the Arab American News shows what's going on in Detroit among Muslim immigrants. 

There are some huge stories out there. I'm hoping more reporters can cover them. 

Categories: Main

Did Washington Post run a sensitive profile, or just transgender propaganda?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Ever notice how mainstream media tend to use the word "truth" as "a strong belief in our subjective viewpoint"? The Washington Post did it with a profile headlined "Truth and transgender at 70: A story of enduring love."

The enormous, 2,700-word profile was the first in a two-parter on Dr. Bill Rohr and surgeon Marci Bowers, whose surgery turned him into Kate Rohr. The articles show great sensitivity and telling detail. They also take such a hard-sell tone, they miss a list of questions, many of them religious in nature.

In a familiar script, Post tells how Rohr always felt different but submerged it for fear of censure. This self-repression also, of course, meant hiding his felt identity while attending church with his parents.

So he endured, through a childhood that was confusing and a puberty that was torture. He felt hormones "ravage" his body, turning him unmistakably male. He avoided looking at himself in a mirror, even to comb his hair. But in every other way, he tried to be the best, most typical boy he could be. Growing up in the suburban hamlet of Fanwood, N.J., he played sports and studied hard, and even though he believed God was deaf to his prayers, he dutifully sat next to his parents in church every Sunday.

This would have been a good place to check with the folks in Fanwood. What did his former classmates notice? How about his brothers? And former fellow congregants? Maybe his pastor, if still alive? We're not even told the church's name or denomination.

And do the Rohrs attend worship anywhere now? Did they ever? Many churches accept LGBT people, starting with the United Church of Christ four decades ago. The list now includes mainline Lutherans, Presbyterians and Episcopalians. Did the family try any of them?

The only other religious reference in this profile is a quotation from the Bible: "Life is a 'chasing after the wind,' Ecclesiastes says. 'Time and chance happen to us all.' " And I'm not even sure why that was added, except to introduce Rohr learning about sex-change surgery.

In 1966, Rohr read about transgendered people and decided that it described himself. He began taking female hormones, then finally opted for surgery after retirement.

"It was an operation he’d long ago dismissed as unattainable — but one Linda said he deserved to have," the story says, citing his wife. Their kids, Matt and Megan, are likewise supportive.

The story then shifts into overdrive for Kate, as Rohr has already called himself/herself:

By 2 p.m., the 25,579 days Kate had lived, anatomically, as Bill were finally over."She’s a girl," surgeon Marci Bowers announced when she came out of the operating room. Everything had gone smoothly, and her handiwork was top-notch, she declared."She’s gorgeous," Bowers said. "On a sliding scale of one to 10, she’s an 11."Linda beamed, hugged the surgeon, then quickly texted Matt and Megan with the news.In the late afternoon, the 70-year-old patient was finally wheeled out of recovery and up to her hospital room. Linda was waiting there, of course, relieved and excited. When the gurney rolled over the threshold, she started to laugh."She still has a smile on her face," Linda said. "Can you believe it?"

The second story is a profile of Dr. Bowers, herself a transgendered person who underwent surgery in 1997. "Meet the gender-affirmation surgeon whose waiting list is three years long," the headline says. The story never says why it uses the loaded term "gender affirmation," rather than "sex change" or "gender reassignment." After the first reference, in fact, the newspaper drops the quotes around the term.

The Post tells how Bowers continues the work of Stanley Biber, who performed his first transgender surgery in 1969.  Now she divides her time between surgery in northern California and teaching at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City.

The doctor argues for separating sex from gender:

"Assigning gender identity on the basis of genitalia makes about as much sense as assigning it on the basis of height," Bowers said. "Biologically, we’re much closer to each other because everyone starts out with a primordial female anatomy, so everything a male has, a female has, and vice versa. It’s just a matter of how the cards are shuffled.""And Marci can reshuffle them," Rohr responded with a smile.

But here we are at the end of the 3,300-word two-parter, still left with questions. For the Bill/Kate profile, they include:

* If Bill didn’t feel he could talk out his feelings to friends or congregants, did he try a counselor? If not, why not? If so, why didn’t it help?

* How do Kate and Linda define their marriage nowadays? Is it wife and wife? Something else? Does the surgery change the dynamic?

* Has their relationship changed with friends and other acquaintances?

For Dr. Bowers, another few questions:

* How many transgender people are there in America? The most common estimate is 700,000. I'll bet the Post could have found that as easily as I did.

* How many such surgeries have there been? Are all or most considered successes?

* How long do marriages last between heterosexuals and transgendered people? Longer than traditional marriages? Shorter? About the same?

The Post two-parter offers an interesting look at how one man decided to undergo the change, as well as how a doctor took on the specialty. But it could have been better with a few penetrating questions. As it is, the stories read less like newspapering and more like transgender propaganda.

Categories: Main

Nearly 1 million sign petition to boycott Target: Will the news media quote any of them?

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why have more than 950,000 people pledged to #BoycottTarget?

— Religion NewsService (@RNS) April 28, 2016

I have a problem with Target.

There, I did it. I admitted my bias.

But inevitably, the store closest to my house only opens a handful of checkout lanes, and I find myself waiting in a long line to buy milk and a loaf of bread. 

Oh, you thought I was going to talk about bathrooms?

OK, I guess I can do that, too.

Maybe you've heard that a #BoycottTarget online petition has gained nearly 1 million signatures. I'm not one of them, mind you. I think boycotts are silly and have no intention to stop shopping at Target (although I'll take this opportunity to call on management to hire more cashiers). I'll also keep eating at Chick-fil-A (as often as possible!). And I'll maintain my PayPal account, even though I hardly ever use it. 

However, from a journalistic perspective, I am interested in news coverage of the Target boycott.

Religion News Service had the basics in a story earlier this week (the number of signatures has kept growing since this report):

(RNS) Less than a week after Target, the nation’s second-largest discount retailer, announced that transgender customers may use the restroom that “corresponds with their gender identity,” nearly 500,000 people have signed a #BoycottTarget online petition launched by the conservative American Family Association.In its April 19 announcement, the Minneapolis-based retailer with 1,802 outlets said, “We believe that everyone — every team member, every guest, and every community — deserves to be protected from discrimination, and treated equally.”The retailer, which had $74 billion in revenue last year, said it was motivated by legislation in about 15 states that would require individuals to use the restroom that corresponds with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The Williams Institute, a think tank based at UCLA, estimates there are 300,000 transgender people (13 or older) in those 15 states.The day after Target’s statement, the AFA launched the boycott, saying, “Target’s policy is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims. Target’s dangerous new policy poses a danger to wives and daughters.”Mississippi-based AFA called on Target to install additional restrooms to be designated as single occupancy and unisex.

Other major media outlets that have covered the boycott include ABC News, CBS News, NPR, the New York Times and USA Today.

In his GetReligion post this week on "Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities," Godbeat legend Richard N. Ostling notes that "Christian organizations judged to be 'anti-LGBT' are on the list of 'hate groups' from liberals’ influential Southern Poverty Law Center." Indeed, several of the Target boycott stories cite the SPLC as calling the American Family Association "extremist." Interestingly, those same media reports neglect to describe the SPLC as a "left-wing" group.

Mostly, the coverage I'm seeing quotes "talking heads" — official spokespeople types from Target, the AFA and various advocacy groups. It's pretty standard fare and doesn't make for real exciting journalism or reading. The conversations from my friends on social media (both for and against the boycott) are much more interesting. (The Washington Post did embed a few tweets from ordinary people.)

Here's what I'd love to see: an actual person who signed the petition quoted and given a chance to explain why. (Or maybe even more than one!)

Some questions a journalist could ask: Are you really concerned about bathroom safety? What's your religious background, and how does that play into your view of opening restrooms to transgenders? How much did you shop at Target previously, and what will be the real impact on you of this boycott decision? What if Walmart issues a similar statement? Will you boycott them, too? Those questions are off the top of my head and by no means all-encompassing.

I also think it would be interesting to send a reporter to a Target store to interview actual customers. I'd love to hear, in particular, from folks (including conservative Christians) who disagree with the retail chain's decision yet don't see a boycott as the answer. I know those people exist because they're all over my Facebook feed.

My point is simple: There's a real conversation occurring, and news organizations going beyond the familiar right/left talking points could tap into it and produce relevant, informative journalism.

If I've missed stories along those lines, by all means, share links by tweeting us at @GetReligion or leaving a comment below.



Categories: Main

Rites of mourning in Ukraine, as well as that Chernobyl verse in the Book of Revelation

Thursday, April 28, 2016

If you want to spend a sobering day -- but a fascinating one as well -- then you need to pay a visit to the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum in Kiev. I have been there twice and, if I returned a third time, I am sure that I would discover more layers of information and symbolism that I missed the first two times around.

Technically speaking, it's a very simple facility, with few of the multi-media bells and whistles that are now the norm in the museum world.

What hits you is the power of the, literally, the parables, icons and relics on display. The contents are simply overwhelming, for those with the eyes to see.

So if you ever enter the museum, look up at the ceiling above the main staircase and search for an explicit reference to the Book of Revelation. Here's what I described in a 2012 column:

KIEV -- The apocalyptic visions begin just inside the doors of the Ukrainian National Chernobyl Museum and many of them lead straight into the Book of Revelation.The final pages of Christian scripture are full of angels, trumpets, flames, thunder, lighting, earthquakes and catastrophes that shake heaven and earth.In this museum, the key is in the eighth chapter: "And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters. And the name of the star is called Wormwood: and the third part of the waters became wormwood; and many men died of the waters, because they were made bitter."When Ukrainians translate "wormwood" into their own language it becomes "chernobyl."

Didn't see that one coming, right? See the symbolism in the Orthodox icon with this post?

Now on to the news. You see, the 30th anniversary of the disaster at the Chernobyl Power Station north of Kiev has received some much-deserved mainstream coverage on both sides of the Atlantic -- which is more than appropriate. You don't have to dig very far into the history of what went on there to grasp that that the story really isn't over.

What is the ongoing impact of the Chernobyl meltdown? We really don't know and the debate about the ongoing fallout is, in and of itself, an important story.

I simply want to note that Chernobyl also great importance to people in Kiev on multiple levels, beyond that of science and health. When you visit the museum you see, over and over, images that depict the disaster as a sign of what happens to humanity when government and science are turned into gods.

How is this reflected in the coverage? So far, I have only seen tiny hints of this side of the story, as if reporters are watching the events and not seeing or hearing all of the content. Here is the overture in a USA Today report:

Ukraine on Tuesday commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear accident that sent radiation spewing across Europe, led to a death toll that is still being debated -- estimates range from 4,000 up to 1 million -- and displaced and sickened hundreds of thousands of people.The meltdown is considered the world's worst nuclear disaster.Throughout ... Ukraine bells and sirens sounded at 1:23:58 a.m. -- the moment the plant's reactor No. 4 exploded on April 26, 1986. In the city of Slavutych, built for workers who were evacuated from Chernobyl's Vladimir Ilyich Lenin Nuclear Power Station in the former Soviet Union, there was a remembrance ceremony for "liquidators," the term for the thousands of military personnel and volunteers who responded to the unfolding accident without suitable protective equipment.Many liquidators have since died or are ill from radiation."Chernobyl has become a serious lesson for all mankind, and to this day it has severe repercussions on both the environment and human health. The scale of the tragedy could be immeasurably greater, if it were not for the unprecedented courage and dedication of the firefighters, military personnel, experts, medical workers who honorably fulfilled their professional and civic duty. Many of them sacrificed their own lives to save others," Russian President Vladimir Putin said. ...

That's a really interesting statement by Putin, since Ukrainians have long considered it highly symbolic of Soviet priorities that the reactor was placed where it was in the first place.

However, what precisely are "Ukraine bells"? Again, if you have been to Kiev you know that we are talking about the city's famous church bells.

Look at the coverage in The Guardian, where you can see the outlines of the civic and religious rites linked to this anniversary. My question: In Ukraine, is anyone making any effort to separate the two spheres? Is that even possible when talking about Chernobyl?

Ukraine is marking the 30th anniversary of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, which permanently poisoned swathes of eastern Europe and highlighted the shortcomings of the secretive Soviet system.In the early hours of April 26, 1986, a botched test at the nuclear plant in then-Soviet Ukraine triggered a meltdown that spewed deadly clouds of atomic material into the atmosphere, forcing tens of thousands of people from their homes.A series of events is being held to commemorate the tragedy, which remains the worst nuclear accident in history. A memorial service is being held at the town of Slavutych, which was built to re-house workers who lived near the nuclear plant, and a church service will be held in Kiev for the families of victims.

If you click through and look at the picture with this report, it shows a distressed woman. Her head is covered and, in the foreground, there is a yellow-brown beeswax candle burning. Anyone who has been in an Orthodox or Eastern-Rite Catholic church can read the symbolism here.

Obviously, at the time of this photo, some of the prayer rites had already begun. What is being said? What did the Ukrainian people believe God wanted them to learn from this tragedy?

Please allow me to return to my 2012 column, in which I went through the museum a second time -- viewing it with the help of a priest.

The bottom line: All of the major exhibits in this "secular" museum include some kind of religious symbolism. What's the message?

"The catastrophe at Chernobyl station took its victims before their time," said Archpriest Andrei Tkachev of St. Agapit of Pechersk Orthodox Church in Kiev. "Man is supposed to meet death in his own time, when he has a chance to prepare to meet God. That kind of death is a gift from God -- a good death."That is not what happened for many of the victims of Chernobyl."The museum opened on April 26, 1992, the fifth anniversary of the disaster and soon after the Soviet Union's collapse. The exhibits include 7,000 artifacts from the 76 towns and villages -- with 76 churches, in this historically Orthodox culture -- that were razed in the radiation-tainted resettlement zone.The door into a large chamber dedicated to the families and children of Chernobyl leads to the church iconostasis, with a radiation suit hanging in place of the Archangel Michael and barbed wire and a contamination sign blocking the way to the altar. High overhead is an icon of St. Nicholas, the patron saint of endangered children.The altar is gone, replaced by a boat -- to carry souls over the waters of death -- full of children's toys. Under the boat, the blackness is full of the icons of saints. Returning to an earlier question: Why is this event so central to issues of Ukrainian identity? Why is the location part of the message?The Chernobyl disaster was especially poignant, said Tkachev, because it struck a region that for many symbolized the innocence and safety of the past."The people here were simple people. They didn't have writers and journalists to tell their stories," he said. "This is an attempt to tell their story, using what they left behind when they were forced to flee the homes, their schools and their churches. ... Modern life separates a man who has deep faith from a man who has little. In these villages, life and faith was simply combined and you can see that here."In one of the starkest images -- over a map of the stricken region -- the melting reactor literally shatters a famous icon of the Virgin Mary holding the Christ child, while an apocalyptic storm swirls around her."We are tempted to think that fire and water and all the elements of nature are at our command, but that is not true," said Tkachev, outside the final exhibit hall. "We can become victims. ... The more technologies are in our lives, the more danger there is that we become their servants, even their slaves."

Here is the archpriest's final theme and, frankly, this is the message that would imagine is soaked into the language of the current rites in Ukraine. Once again, are journalists missing one of the darkest of dark themes connected to this image of hell on earth?

If a man builds a bicycle and it breaks while he is riding it, then he will be hurt when he falls, said Tkachev. If he builds an airplane and it breaks, this man will almost certainly die when it crashes."Now, if we build a nuclear reactor in our back yard and it breaks, then the catastrophe will kill many and it may last into future generations," he said. "What this teaches us is that we must fear God and try to be humble about the things that we build with our own hands."

Has anyone seen coverage of this anniversary that gets the importance of the candles, the bells, the prayers and the liturgies? Has anyone noticed that this is unfolding in the days just ahead of Eastern Orthodox Holy Week?

Just asking.

Front page and second image: The remains of an Orthodox iconostasis in the national museum, taken from a sanctuary inside the infect zone, complete with a hazard suit and an icon of the Angel Gabriel. Top image: The Chernobyl Savior icon.

Categories: Main

Coming soon to the pews near you: Transgender wars and copy-desk perplexities

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

On the sexuality beat, much news involves the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2015 gay marriage mandate. In particular, should government should protect, or penalize, artists and merchants who want to avoid cooperating with same-sex wedding rites due to religious conscience?

Journalists need to understand that this is a mere skirmish compared with far more potent church-state fights that inevitably lie ahead.

Meanwhile, transgender conflicts are fast gaining media momentum. At issue: Should public lavatories and shower rooms be open to transgender individuals whose “gender identity” is the opposite of their birth genetics and anatomy? In other words, biological men using women’s rooms and vice versa. 

The national headlines cover federal and state actions, but the same problem will soon be coming to a public school near you -- if it hasn’t already.

What does this have to do with religion-news work? Well, religious groups and individuals are usually at the forefront of those favoring traditional toilet and shower access.

Frank Bruni, whose New York Times columns neatly define the Left’s cultural expectations, sees the wedding merchant and lavatory debates as one and the same. In both cases, he asserts, a ”divisive, “cynical” and “opportunistic” “freakout” by conservatives has “egregiously” violated LGBT equality. Thus the “T” for transgender and “B” for bisexual are fully fused with the victorious lesbian and gay causes.

Christian organizations judged to be “anti-LGBT” are on the list of “hate groups” from liberals’ influential Southern Poverty Law Center. The Southern Baptist Convention is not so listed, but on March 25 the SPLC’s “Hatewatch Staff” took aim at conservative moves in the nation’s largest Protestant body, which has 46,000 local congregations.

Bruni’s target was North Carolina, where the Republican legislature and governor overruled a Charlotte ordinance and required traditional bathroom access statewide. Bruni protested that politicians raise “the hallucinated specter of male sexual predators entering women’s restrooms, to sweep aside anti-discrimination laws.” New York and Connecticut are now forbidding state-funded travel to North Carolina, PayPal is cancelling a new operations center planned for Charlotte and other businesses are likely to penalize the state.

The Obama administration is in the thick of it. A heads-up Times item revealed that the federal transportation and education departments are reviewing whether to cut off $5.3 billion dollars in federal aid to North Carolina on  anti-discrimination grounds, while other federal agencies make funding threats against local governments. “Title IX” does not mention toilets or shower rooms and a Virginia federal court decision said traditional restrictions do not violate federal law. The Obama administration appealed and won a reversal of that ruling April 19.

Public-school struggles are bound to increase. For one example, on April 11, New Jersey’s Pascack Valley regional district ordered transgender pupils’ access to lavatories and athletic locker rooms on the basis of “chosen gender identity” instead of birth biology.  

Superintendent P. Erik Gundersen defends this as a natural application of  the state’s anti-discrimination law, which makes transgendered citizens a protected category.

The Record newspaper reports that at least a dozen other New Jersey districts have enacted the same policy “without fanfare.” Pascack parents complain that the school board blindsided them about this proposed change. Those opposed on religious grounds are being advised by Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal agency.

And then, how will newswriters and copyreaders navigate the transgender conundrum? The New York Times Magazine reports that “the language debate of the moment” is between the “biological essentialist” approach based on birth genetics versus new “gender identity” assertions.

Some propose that publishers shelve “he” and “she” in favor of the “singular they” that is already accommodating feminists. But such blurring of gender offends some transgender advocates who instead want  newly invented pronouns like “xe,” “xim,” and “xir.” The GLAAD gay lobby advises journalists to carefully check with each individual named in a story to use hishertheirxir preferred pronoun and gender identification.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Gay grooms and a Colorado baker: Why don't reporters ask about motives anymore?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

It is becoming another day, another lawsuit, now that homosexual couples are turning the wedding industry upside down by suing bakers, photographers, florists, et al., who won’t make gay-themed materials. In this post Obergefell era, we shall be seeing more news like what broke late on Monday.

The below article from the Denver Post is fairly straight forward, although there’s questions that never get posed.

Your GetReligionistas have been waiting for the shoe to drop for some time in the Jack Phillips case, which has been wending its way through the courts for four years. As we’ve reported previously, a lot of the problem is in the framing. What gets lost in the shuffle is this: People are refusing to take part in creating a type of message, linked to a specific kind of rite, not refusing all commerce with a type of person.

First, the court decision:

The Colorado Supreme Court will not hear the case of a Lakewood baker who refused to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.That decision effectively upholds a ruling by the Colorado Court of Appeals that found Masterpiece Cakeshop owner Jack Phillips cannot cite his religious beliefs or free-speech rights in refusing to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.Phillips' attorneys, who asked the state's high court to hear the case, said they are "evaluating all legal options."If Phillips' attorneys continue to pursue the case, one option may be asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case.

And then, the background:

In 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins were turned away by Phillips while trying to buy a custom wedding cake. Mullins and Craig planned to marry in Massachusetts and wanted a cake to celebrate in Colorado.Phillips told the couple he would not make them a wedding cake because of his religious beliefs."We all have a right to our personal beliefs, but we do not have a right to impose those beliefs on others and discriminate against them," Ria Tabacco Mar, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, said in a statement.

I know the reporter threw the story together in a hurry, but he did not emphasize how people are being compelled to conform to a type of message. Note that this press release from the Alliance Defending Freedom (the organization handling Phillips’ case in court) talks about the order handed down by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission commanding the baker to make gay-themed wedding cakes.

If you wish to refresh your memory, this piece in the Daily Signal best describes the brief interaction that Phillips had with these two men back in 2012.

One of the more cogent pieces I found about the decision was from the Washington Blade whose reporter had the best explanation I saw of the legal background behind Monday’s announcement.

One thing I don’t see mentioned is whether there is some kind of punitive financial judgment coming down on this baker as there has been in similar cases across the country. We’re talking about the $136,000+ that an Oregon baker had to pay to an aggrieved lesbian couple.

Also notice a more recent story about an Illinois bed-and-breakfast that got fined $80,000 for refusing to host a civil-union ceremony on their property. Like all the folks cited in this column, the defendants claimed their Christian faith forbade them to cooperate with same-sex ceremonies. This older New York Times piece explains the religious issues involved.

What do these two stories have in common? For starters, it's the reporters' refusal to ask anything about the motives of those bringing the lawsuits.

What brought up a red flag for me in the B&B story was a simple search of gay-friendly lodgings in Illinois that could have met the needs of the couple wanting the civil union ceremony. But no, they only wanted their festivities at the one place that didn’t want to host the event and of course they sued. And like the plaintiffs in the above-mentioned Oregon case, they alleged thousands of dollars of emotional distress and harm.

Am I the only person seeing a pattern here? Go find a business that doesn’t believe in gay weddings, tell them you want them to bake you a cake/supply you with flowers or host your ceremony and when they say no, then sue them out of existence? A lot of monetary judgments haven’t come down yet because the cases haven’t been resolved, but there’s obviously gold in them hills.

Why aren’t journalists asking similar questions to mine? Why isn’t anyone pointing out the other nearby businesses that desire to accommodate these couples? Is anyone drawing up a spreadsheet of all the lawsuits in progress, of all the people forced out of business and of all the fines that have been levied?

What about bakeries owned by people who belong to other religions that are also opposed to gay marriage? The Washington Times did a story a year ago about Muslim bakeries in the Detroit area that likewise don’t want to cater gay weddings but which have stayed under the radar. Why is the Times the only newspaper to ask this question?

I see a lot of painting by the numbers, a lot of writing according to a formula and a lot of not wanting to look under certain rocks. There are stories out there, folks, but they may be stories that don’t line up with your personal views or those of your editor. There was a time when reporters went after such stories nonetheless. Those days may be gone.

Categories: Main

What does she really believe? AP takes a shallow dive into Hillary Clinton's faith

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The headline is nice.

The headline stirs my curiosity.

The headline entices me to click:

For Hillary Clinton, church offers a trusted comfort zone:

— AP Politics (@AP_Politics) April 24, 2016

As I dive into this week's Associated Press story on Hillary Clinton's faith, I'm hopeful of learning more about what makes the Democratic presidential frontrunner tick — from a religious standpoint.

Here at GetReligion, of course, this topic has come up before:

When @HillaryClinton describes herself as a "person of faith," what does she REALLY mean?:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) January 27, 2016

In the latest story, the lede sets the scene:

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — Sunday mornings at Baptist churches fall right into Hillary Clinton's comfort zone."This is the day the Lord has made," Clinton said recently at Grace Baptist Church in Mount Vernon, New York, as sunshine streamed through the stained-glass windows and hit the packed pews. "Being here at this church with these beautiful people, knowing how grateful I am for this spring day. I feel blessed and grace is all around us."Black Baptist churches may not seem like an obvious match for Clinton, a white Methodist from the Chicago suburbs. But the Democratic presidential candidate, who's been criticized for her tentative, even awkward political skills, often seems most at ease in houses of worship. It's where she's shared her faith for many years and earned a loyal following."One thing not a lot of people really understand about her is the central role of faith in her life," said Mo Elleithee, Clinton's spokesman in her 2008 White House campaign.

OK, you have my attention. Please tell me more.

However, here's the problem: The story never leaves the shallow end of the pool.

The wire service offers a few anecdotes and quotes to support its thesis that church represents a comfort zone for Clinton. The AP also quotes a Donald Trump supporter who calls Clinton "very, very liberal" and suggests that she's "the absolute wrong choice for a voter of faith." The Trump supporter adds balance to the piece, yes, but no true insight.

And sure, it's good to know, as the story reports, that Clinton says she loves how prayers and hymns make her feel. 

But what exactly does she believe? How does she view God and his place in the world — and her life? How is her faith different than that of, say, a conservative evangelical such as Ted Cruz?

Deep questions such as these beg for answers. Alas, this story makes no attempt to provide them.

All in all, that makes for a disappointing read.

Categories: Main

USA Today asks: Do private schools with doctrines have a right to the NCAA brand?

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

If you didn't see this big-time sports story coming then you haven't been paying attention.

During a radio talk show a few months ago, I speculated that if Baylor (one of my two alma maters) had qualified for the final four in football, it was highly likely that gay-rights groups would petition the NCAA powers that be to have the Bears (and other private schools with doctrinally based lifestyle covenants) kicked out of the association.

Not yet. But the arguments are beginning, as evidenced in the new USA Today feature that ran under the headline, "When religion and the LGBT collegiate athlete collide."

Now, if you believe in old-school journalism ethics -- think "American Model" of the press -- then the goal of this story is to accurately represent the beliefs of representatives on both sides of this debate. Want to guess how that turns out?

Meanwhile, it's crucial to remember that the NCAA is not a government agency and, as a private body, is not limited by the First Amendment's free exercise of religion clause. To further complicate matters, the NCAA includes both private and state schools. Thus, while there may be legal issues involved (television and conference contracts, for example) in this NCAA debate, this really shouldn't be called a religious-liberty debate. The NCAA rules.

This feature starts, of course, with a gay athlete -- swimmer Conner Griffin -- who attends Fordham University, a Catholic school that is clearly enlightened since it has chosen the spirit of the age over attempts to live out (some would say "enforce") Catholic doctrines on marriage and sex.

So right up top there is this exchange:

"People want to tell me I’m brave,” Griffin tells USA TODAY Sports. “Coming out as gay isn’t brave, or shouldn’t be. I was born this way. I didn’t choose it. People choose to enlist in the Army. That’s brave. Coming out should just be normal and not a big deal.”Except that it is a big deal at many religiously affiliated colleges that see homosexuality as a sin -- and that have codes of conduct banning same-sex relations. Freedom of religion allows such schools to operate under their own precepts and beliefs, but gay rights advocates say that doesn’t mean the NCAA must allow membership to schools that enforce these kinds of codes."The association is this fascinating, complex entity that has universities and colleges that cover the political spectrum, many of which have religious affiliations,” NCAA president Mark Emmert says. “The association entrusts its board of governors, a group of mostly university presidents, to establish the core principles and values by which they want to conduct college sports.”

Now, set aside the issue of whether scientists have -- think debates about DNA in identical twins -- proven a genetic cause for the mysteries of homosexuality and, yes, bisexuality.

The question is whether journalists at USA Today actually understand the beliefs of the millions (or maybe billions) of Christians, Jews, Muslims, Mormons and others who believe that all sex outside of male-female marriage is a sin.

Thus, does this sentence accurately state their beliefs? Read it again: "Except that it is a big deal at many religiously affiliated colleges that see homosexuality as a sin -- and that have codes of conduct banning same-sex relations."

Do the leaders of these schools believe that homosexual orientation is a sin or would they say that they believe acts of gay sex are sinful (as are all sexual acts, straight or gay, outside of marriage)?

Now, activists on the other side of this argument, including lots of liberal religious believers, would say that this is a distinction without a difference. Sexual orientation equals race and that's that and everyone has a right to have sex, got it? That is a point of view that, clearly stated, MUST be included in this report, and it is.

However, right up front, the editors at USA Today have twisted the beliefs of folks on one side of the debate at the heart of this piece. That is not a good place to start. USA Today needs to run a correction.

As you would expect, the trans revolution also plays a major role in this story. Thus:

The Education Department said in 2014 that transgender students are protected by Title IX. Since, dozens of religious schools -- mostly smaller and lesser known, and none of the schools mentioned in this story -- have asked for waivers that allow them to deny admittance to transgender students. And that has turned into a flashpoint for the NCAA.Recently more than 80 LGBT organizations wrote a letter to the NCAA urging it to divest membership of religiously affiliated schools that ask for such waivers. “These requests,” the letter said, “are directly in conflict with the NCAA’s longstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion for all people regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity.”Last month, the NCAA wrote a return letter noting that it plays no role in making waiver decisions or in telling schools whom they should admit. “Our diverse membership comprising over 1,100 schools all serve to educate students while also preserving institutional values,” the letter says, adding it is up to students “to evaluate multiple schools to find one that best meets their needs.”That sounds a lot like telling transgender students just to choose other schools. Or, in the case of sexual orientation: If you’re gay, stay away.

Actually, doctrinally defined private schools -- on the left and the right -- are voluntary associations. Repeat the word "voluntary." Their leaders would be the first to say that parents and young people should take these doctrines into consideration when making decisions about which schools to attend and, here is the key part, which lifestyle and doctrinal covenants to VOLUNTARILY SIGN.

The leaders of these schools would say that gay athletes who choose to attend their schools should choose to honor the covenants -- think of them as vows -- that they made when signing on the bottom line.

If you read the whole piece, the USA Today team does allow leaders at religious schools to state what they believe about sexual ethics -- kind of, sort of. This clashes with the facts stated at the top of the report. Thus, there is a major tension in the story between what these believers are saying and what, in its summary of the facts, USA Today is saying that they are really saying.

Close to the end, the piece contrasts a small conservative school with one of the biggest names in all of sports -- Notre Dame. Read this long passage carefully:

Athletes can be dismissed from their teams for same-sex relationships at LeTourneau, according to its student-athlete handbook. Janet Ragland, director of university relations, calls the school “a Christ-centered community that does not discriminate. … All students and student-athletes voluntarily agree to abide by all campus behavioral standards … consistent with our Biblically based theological foundation.”Gay and lesbian athletes are welcome at Notre Dame, which last year launched an inclusion campaign wrapped in the wider message of Catholicism. “We felt it was important to have the right message on this issue,” says Dennis Brown, vice president for university communications.Much of the momentum for this came thanks to former Notre Dame tennis player Matt Dooley, who came out to teammates in 2013 and publicly in 2014. He is part of a campaign video that features athletics director Jack Swarbrick and athletes from every men’s and women’s team.The NCAA says several religious schools, which it declined to name, have reached out in the last year to ask for guidance on their policies and codes of conduct. Wilson, the director of inclusion, says the NCAA offers examples of schools — religious and not, including Notre Dame — with supportive policies and safe environments for LGBT athletes.“The NCAA puts out manuals and has inclusion meetings,” says Zeigler, the LGBT activist. “Yet none of these approaches stop an NCAA program from having anti-gay athletics policies.” He says it is time for the NCAA to forbid member schools from discriminating against LGBT athletes, giving such schools a choice of changing their policies or having their membership revoked.

Once again, what key elements of this debate vanished in that exchange?

Might the story clarify, perhaps for the Vatican, the precise factual details of Notre Dame's policy on sexual acts outside of marriage by its athletes, gay and straight? That's a key fact to omit from the story.

Note, again, that LGBT activist Zeigler (as is his right) is allowed to state that the right to sexual expression trumps the freedom of association in doctrinally defined schools. That is his stance and, again, it's crucial to the story. Also, the NCAA, as a private association, is free to embrace his point of view. The NCAA may do that, once ESPN ramps up its support for this campaign.

But the issue here is whether this USA Today has allowed readers to read an accurate -- forget balanced for a moment -- debate between experts on both sides of this fight.

What say ye?

Categories: Main

Islamophobia: Wrestling with the subjective from Southwest Airlines to Latvia

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

My GetReligion colleague Bobby Ross Jr. published a post last week about the removal of a California man from a Southwest Airlines flight after another passenger overheard him speak Arabic and became concerned. If you missed the Southwest saga, click here for an Associated Press report on the incident.

Bobby's focus was that the line between irrational Islamophobia and rational precaution is often fuzzy, and that journalists sometimes rush to assume the former because "we journalists love victims."

Good point. The white-hat-versus-black-hat trope is a journalism classic.

Now let's state this issue of subjective judgement another way: Given how complicated the question of when-is-it and when-isn't-it Islamophobia can become, should journalists even try to discern between the two in what we quaintly refer to as straight, or hard, news stories, beyond the he-said, she-said level? I don't think so.

In the case of an airline about to take off, I find it difficult to argue against putting group passenger safety over all other concerns. That includes taking the risk of showing ignorance or acting insensitively toward one or more Muslim or Arab-speaking passengers in a highly sensitive, ethnically, racially and politically charged setting.

I'm not an Arabic speaker, Muslim or person or color so perhaps I'm just not as sensitive to this issue as I might be if I were any of these things. Let me also stipulate that I fly to Israel often and I can recall on more than one occasion mentally frowning when I thought some non-Israeli airline was being lax in its pre-boarding security checks. (Israeli airlines are never lax in this regard, and they make no excuses for profiling.)

Clearly, the central issue -- do you under-react or over-react, in what could be a life-or-death situation?-- is a tough one in today's age of global terrorism, in which commercial aircraft have been weaponized time and time again. It's a tough call for airline personnel, for government officials, and journalists alike.

Here's another facet of this Islamophobia debate. This example comes from Latvia, the small Baltic nation that so far has not experienced the societal tensions that have flared elsewhere in Europe as a result of Muslim immigration.

Read the top of this story that ran in last week's New York Times:

ZAUBE, Latvia -- With her niqab, a face-covering Islamic veil that reveals just the wearer’s eyes, Liga Legzdina stands out amid pine trees, grasslands and wood-paneled cottages in the Latvian hamlet of Zaube.Villagers stare. Ms. Legzdina is one of a tiny handful of women — generally estimated at three — to wear the niqab in this Baltic nation, whose population of less than two million people includes about 1,000 practicing Muslims, according to government estimates.But for Latvia’s Ministry of Justice, that is three niqabs too many. Citing a desire to protect Latvian culture and to address security concerns at a time of rising migration to Europe, the government is working on proposed legislation, inspired partly by similar restrictions on head coverings in France, that would ban face-covering veils from public spaces. The proposal would not ban the wearing of head scarves that do not cover the face, like hijabs, the coverings most commonly worn by Muslim women.“A legislator’s task is to adopt preventive measures,” said Justice Minister Dzintars Rasnacs, a member of the anti-immigration National Alliance party, who predicted that the law would win overwhelming backing in Parliament and would be in place at the start of 2017.

Get that? An estimated three women in all of Latvia wear a niqab.

Yet the Latvian justice minister, judging from his comments above, believes that's enough of a threat to warrant a national law barring the wearing of a niqab at any time in public. Presumably, that would include the public space that any of the three women might have to cross going from a car to a mosque entrance and vice versa.

I understand the desire to avoid the cultural conflict Latvians see happening in Sweden, Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, that's connected to the large number of unassimilated Muslims settling in those nations. Nor can they be faulted for wanting to avoid the violence perpetuated by Islam State-aligned terrorists and others that has accompanied this population shift.

But I also can't help but think that Latvia's proposed "three-niqab law" is a fear-based attempt to head off what might be labeled "creeping sharia-ism," a term I've borrowed from American-Iranian comedian Negin Farsad.

In short, it's creating a problem where there is, as yet, none, and in the process fanning an irrational fear that I think may properly be described as Islamophobia.

The Latvian case hasn't aroused much media commentary on the New World's side of the Great Pond, as you'd expect. The Southwest case has, also as you'd expect.

Three interesting reads on this I've come across are here, here and here.

The last piece is by a former flight attendant and is particularly interesting in its description of how inflight airline personnel are trained to deal with passenger fears and upsets, including those stemming from allegedly suspicious looking fellow-passengers. Read it first, if you don't intend to read all three.

So what's my journalism takeaway here?

Obviously, that one person's Islamophobia is another person's rational precaution. Moreover, the person being singled out, such as the Arabic-speaking Southwest passenger or the Latvian Muslim,  will almost always feel they've been profiled, stereotyped, and discriminated against -- no matter what those in charge think they're doing.

Perhaps that's why I, as a sensitized Jew, tend to smell anti-Semitism when others don't, or why some Christians suspect an anti-Christian bias when I do not. Perceptions are so individualized that it's imperative, as Bobby suggested, to be extra cautious about the use of the term Islamophobia -- or any ethnic, racial or religious hot-button label.

Have you noticed that I haven't actually attempted to define Islamophobia? That's because I find it impossible to come up with a blanket definition covering all possibilities.

Besides, you probably already have your mind made up on the issue and your own definition, as wobbly as it may be.

Categories: Main

To pee (in public) or not to pee: The Los Angeles Times fudges the question

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Recently, the Los Angeles Times had a news piece about a Christian group that objects to a place for public urination at a San Francisco park. In one of those only-in-San-Francisco (for now) instances, the city went French on everyone, setting up a pissoir (no joke) so that folks who couldn’t make it to a restroom could go with the flow right there, out in the open, in the park.

Being that this place was close to where passersby could see the action, one Christian group has objected to the point of filing a lawsuit. Personally, being that this is San Francisco, I think a lawsuit is/was not going anywhere, but they have the right to give it a try.

But the Times doesn’t seem to think they have standing. Here’s their story:

Apparently, peeing al fresco is not sitting well with everyone.A religious group and several residents have sued the city and county of San Francisco over the new open-air urinal in Mission Dolores Park, calling it a “shameful” violation of privacy and decency.The San Francisco Chinese Christian Union, along with several neighbors of the park, filed a 25-page civil suit in San Francisco County Superior Court on Thursday, alleging discrimination based on gender and disability, as well as violations of health and plumbing codes.The urinal, which city officials call a “pissoir,” opened in January as the city’s latest move to combat public urination. It was part of an extensive park renovation that included new irrigation, playgrounds and restrooms.The open-air urinal, next to a Muni streetcar stop, consists of a concrete pad with a drain and a circular fence that offers limited privacy. It is near the park’s southwest corner, affectionately dubbed “the gay beach.”

Wait. Is that barrier circular or a half circle? Moving on.

The San Francisco Chinese Christian Union, described in the suit as a religious nonprofit that includes 15 churches, and other plaintiffs said in their lawsuit that the “sewer hole” forced unwitting parkgoers to have to see strangers’ genitals while in a public park. It also discriminates against people who need to pee but don’t want to do so out in the open, the suit says. ...The plaintiffs are represented by the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that advocated for the repeal of a state law requiring public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and play on sports teams of the gender with which they identify.

The reporter seems puzzled as to what this Chinese Christian Union is. They do have a Facebook page, albeit mostly in Chinese. There are such things as translators if the reporter would like to know more.

The reporter did get an interview with the legal group representing the Chinese. Once again, take a look at how this group is described in this news report.

The plaintiffs are represented by the Sacramento-based Pacific Justice Institute, a conservative legal group that advocated for the repeal of a state law requiring public schools to let transgender students use bathrooms and play on sports teams of the gender with which they identify.

Opposing the transgender narrative is already an unpardonable sin with many media. The institute also stands against mandatory union dues, Common Core tests and has former U.S. Attorney Gen. Ed Meese as chair of their advisory board, so they are not totally one-dimensional. It'd be nice to reflect that as well as include the names of (and interviews with) the neighbors who are party to the suit. 

Then here’s what follows a few paragraphs later:

The city attorney’s office noted in the statement that the Southern Poverty Law Center has identified the Pacific Justice Institute as an anti-LGBT hate group.(The institute’s attorney Brad) Dacus dismissed that designation as being from a “very far-leftist extremist organization” and said the city was “desperately trying to divert attention from the real issues” in the lawsuit.

Well, at least Dacus got to respond to that one but why is the SPLC the automatic high priestly authority here? Quite a few folks have protested the way this group is given the power to decide who are and who are not the haters in American public life.  Even some on the cultural left don’t agree with how the SPLC measures hate.

Knowing that history, why does the Times cite the SPLC?

If you read the comments section, you’ll notice it’s not so much the urinal’s existence that’s the problem but it’s where the thing is located --  right next to a street car stop. So folks sitting in the public transport get to see a not-so-shielded male relieving himself just a few feet from the curb. It gives new meaning to the phrase "open air toilet," which is how New York magazine described the site. 

I’m including with this piece a photo from the institute that shows a man using the pissoir with a kid looking on. The Times photo doesn’t show anything that explicit but it does show a street car pulling up right next to the site. If I was a religious group, I might have better ways to spend my funds rather than suing the city, but folks have sued for crazier things, like scalding coffee at McDonald's

Still, the reporter could have done a better job of finding what these churches are. Certainly Dacus could have provided that info. The article was clearly a phoner that was whipped up in a few hours, plus it cribbed on a similar San Francisco Chronicle story, even repeating the Chronicle's linking of the Pacific Justice Institute as a hate group according to the SPLC.

As mentioned above, at least the Times allowed the institute to contest that sobriquet. The Chronicle columnist didn't even bother to do that. And the reporter could have asked why a religious group was doing the heavy lifting on this kind of case.

Other than questions about modesty and children, what does religion have to do with a pissoir? We're still waiting to find out.

Photo courtesy of the Pacific Justice Institute

Categories: Main

Faith angle or not, this Washington Post story on civil asset forfeiture will outrage you

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

How Oklahoma cops took $53,000 from a Burmese Christian band, a church in Omaha and an orphanage in Thailand

— Washington Post (@washingtonpost) April 25, 2016

Yes, the story we are about to discuss has a religion angle.

But it's not a religion story per se.

Rather, this is a story about what happens when law enforcement authorities with unchecked power trample on an ordinary person and take his personal property — with little recourse on the citizen's part.

Sadly, the case in question involves my home state of Oklahoma, as the Washington Post reports:

Eh Wah had been on the road for 12 hours when he saw the flashing lights in his rear-view mirror.The 40-year-old Texas man, a refugee from Burma who became a U.S. citizen more than a decade ago, was heading home to Dallas to check on his family. He was on a break from touring the country for months as a volunteer manager for the Klo & Kweh Music Team, a Christian rock ensemble from Burma, also known as Myanmar. The group was touring the United States to raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand.Eh Wah managed the band's finances, holding on to the cash proceeds it raised from ticket and merchandise sales at concerts. By the time he was stopped in Oklahoma, the band had held concerts in 19 cities across the United States, raising money via tickets that sold for $10 to $20 each.The sheriff's deputies in Muskogee County, Okla., pulled Eh Wah over for a broken tail light about 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 27. The deputies started asking questions — a lot of them. And at some point, they brought out a drug-sniffing dog, which alerted on the car. That's when they found the cash, according to the deputy's affidavit.

As the story continues, readers learn:

All told, the deputies found $53,000 in cash in Eh Wah's car that night. Muskogee County Sheriff Charles Pearson said he couldn't comment on the particulars of Eh Wah's case because of the open investigation, but it is clear from his deputy's affidavit that the officers didn't like Eh Wah's explanation for how he got the cash. "Inconsistent stories," the affidavit notes. Despite the positive alert from the drug-sniffing dog, no drugs, paraphernalia or weapons were found. Just the cash.

The Post notes that deputies had trouble understanding Eh Wah because English isn't his first language. They eventually let him go, but they kept all his money.

The entire story is worth a read. However, prepare to be outraged. (There is a happy development that you'll notice in the "update" at the top of the story.)

In a general sort of way, the newspaper provides a nice glimpse of the kind of person Eh Wah is:

People who know Eh Wah say they are flabbergasted at the notion that Oklahoma considers him a drug trafficker. "It is very, very strange for us, for the whole Karen community," Marvellous, the band member, said, referring to the Burmese ethnic minority that Eh Wah and Marvellous belong to."Eh Wah doesn't even know how to smoke. Eh Wah doesn't know how to drink beer," he said. "He's a very simple man, simple and straight."The musical ensemble was playing concerts for Burmese Christian communities stretching from Utica, N.Y., to Bakersfield, Calif. They were raising money for the Dr. T. Thanbyah Christian Institute, a religious liberal arts college in Burma serving the Karen community there. They had also collected funds for the Hsa Thoo Lei orphanage in Thailand, which serves internally displaced Karen people.Eh Wah worked at a refugee resettlement agency in Dallas, helping Karen people like him start new lives in the United States and escape persecution back home. So the Klo & Kweh Music Team naturally turned to him for help in planning and executing the U.S. tour.The work was exhausting and stressful, but it was rewarding. Eh Wah secured all of the proper visas for the band members. He lined up a 23-city tour schedule spanning four months. He made sure that all 11 band members showed up at the right places at the right times.Eh Wah is quiet and humble almost to a fault. When I spoke with him on the phone, I could barely make out the words he was saying. "Normally, I’m a very quiet person," he explained. "I don’t talk a lot. The way I live my life, I never thought that I would go somewhere like jail, that I would have to explain myself with all these things that I never have done in my life," he added. "I don't even know what the drugs look like."

But does the Post nail the religion angle in this story? Yes and no, I'd say.

Yes, because — as I mentioned earlier — this is not a religion story per se. I don't think we can fault the writer for not dwelling more on faith matters given all the other crucial ground that was essential to cover.

No, because I can't help but think that even a quote or two from Eh Wah about the role of his Christian faith (particularly in dealing with this trying experience) would have added immensely to an already excellent piece of journalism.

What do you think, dear readers? By all means, tweet us at @GetReligion or leave a comment below.





Categories: Main

CNN offers fine look at Prince the believer (while missing a key Jehovah's Witness belief)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

It is perfectly normal for mainstream journalists to have to explain complicated subjects to their readers. It's part of the job.

At the moment, political reporters are trying to explain the differences between country-club Republicans, libertarian Republicans, neoconservative Republicans, Log Cabin Republicans, culturally conservative Republicans and Donald Trump. This is tough work. A few years ago I read a newspaper story that managed to explain the off-sides rule in soccer. Amazing!

But when it comes to stories that involve religious doctrine, journalists often stumble or punt. How many solid articles have you seen that explained the crucial doctrinal differences between Sunni and Shia Muslims?

This brings me to two news features about the final years of Prince, the time in which he retreated even further from public view after joining the Jehovah's Witnesses. CNN offered a fine piece, but omitted a crucial piece of doctrine at the heart of controversies about this religious movement, which many Christians consider a sect or even -- in doctrinal terms -- a cult. The Los Angeles Times, however, managed to give readers a short description of this doctrinal clash.

The CNN piece was quite solid in its fine details about the singer and the believers who knew him as another believer in their flock. Here is the overture:

(CNN) The world knew Prince as a pop star with a flamboyant, larger-than-life stage presence, overtly sexual songs and videos and gifted musical genius. But at the Jehovah's Witness Kingdom Hall, St. Louis Park congregation, Prince was just an understated man in a simple black suit."He was exceptionally shy," recalled congregation secretary Bruce McFarland.Here they called him Brother Nelson and remember him slipping in after the opening song in the Sunday morning service, dutifully holding up his hand, clutching his Bible marked with post-it notes, patiently waiting his turn to discuss the Scripture. On the surface, few in this 95-member conservatively dressed, middle class suburban congregation look like they've ever danced to 'Let's Go Crazy."

The story notes that the movement is "often derided in the mainstream," which makes these believers feel "defensive about that lack of understanding." Hold that thought.

The CNN team also did a fine job of noting how faith issues were a constant in Prince's life, even before his adult baptism into the Jehovah's Witness faith in 2003.

Prince Rogers Nelson, born in Minneapolis, was raised Seventh Day Adventist. His early lyrics, while overtly sexual in nature, had tinges of spirituality. On an appearance on the The Tavis Smiley Show in 2009, Prince claimed spirituality touched him as a young child."I was born epileptic. I used to have seizures when I was young," he told Smiley. That epilepsy was cured, Prince said. How? Because as a child, he told his mother, "an angel told me so." Prince also told Smiley he doesn't recall that conversation with his mother."I like to believe my inspiration comes from God," Prince told CNN's Larry King in December 1999. "I've always known God is my creator. Without him, nothing works."

So what is the controversy here?

At the very end, the CNN features deals with one of the controversies linked to this religious movement -- a well-known doctrine linked to medical care. A key figure in this discussion is James Lundstrom, a member of this Kingdom Hall who had been one of Prince's friends in the faith since 2002. The story noted that Lundstrom serves as a "Jehovah's Witness hospital liaison committee representative in Minneapolis." This is crucial.

Unique to this faith the position is needed in a religion that carries a very specific requirement -- allogeneic blood transfusions, often required during major surgeries, are prohibited. As a hospital liaison committee representative, Lundstrom connects members of his faith with doctors who will honor that blood transfusion requirement. ...Lundstrom, who said he last saw Prince a month ago at a church service on March 23, bristled at a question about Prince's medical condition. "He was at the Kingdom Hall. He looked fine, talked fine," said Lundstrom.

Other parishioners offered more blunt pronouncements about Prince and an alleged aversion to surgery on his hips because of Jehovah's Witness beliefs about blood transfusions."Nobody said he (Prince) couldn't get surgery. Absolutely not," said David Osburn. Osburn, who said his own sister did die in 1979 because she refused blood transfusions, argues today's surgeries are often compatible with Jehovah's Witness beliefs."We're not anti-medicine. In fact, we go out of our way to try and find the best medical care we can," said Osburn.

Those who have studied church-state law in American life know that the Jehovah's Witnesses have played a crucial role in testing the limits of religious liberty, because of this teaching that many would argue creates a clear threat to life and health. However, it's important to note (as many judges have) that the Witnesses have long cooperated with researchers on ways to improve low-blood-loss surgery techniques. Thus, this story included that unexplained reference to "today's surgeries" often being compatible with this faith.

So what is the missing controversy? Simply stated, we are talking about the doctrinal clash that caused so many GetReligion readers to send me emails after that Washington Post headline that said (and continues to say, without a correction), "Raunchy Prince was actually a conservative Christian who reportedly opposed gay marriage."

Thus, the question: Are Jehovah's Witnesses really "conservative" Christians?

The Los Angeles Times team covered that same service at the Kingdom Hall near Prince's home. However, it's report included a crucial chunk of material that CNN missed. At least, it's crucial material if readers want to know why millions of traditional Christians consider Jehovah's Witnesses to be heretics.

Let's walk through this:

Over the final decade of his life, Prince worshiped here because he was a fellow believer in the Jehovah's Witness tenets: that Jesus was a savior but was lesser to God, that these are the final days of civilization, that the dead will be resurrected, and that the world will live under a global government lead by Jehovah, a Hebrew name for God. Among the St. Louis Park congregation, Prince wasn't a celebrity but an equal in faith.

So if Jesus is, by nature, a lesser being than God the Father, that would mean what? Later, there is this:

Prince was one of America's most notoriously private celebrities, and few facts about his life were more beguiling than his conversion in 2001 to Jehovah's Witnesses, a faith not recognized as Christian by Catholics and Protestants largely because Jehovah's Witnesses don't believe in the Holy Trinity.Jehovah's Witnesses call themselves Christians, and they admire Jesus, but they don't venerate the cross and don't celebrate Christmas or Easter — or birthdays. They don't gather in churches but in Kingdom Halls. They avoid political involvement and refuse to fight in wars.

Most church historians use the term "sect" to describe a new religious movement that changes a crucial doctrine in the faith from which it has emerged. Belief in the Trinity is certainly a doctrine at the core of, well, Trinitarian Christianity.

The Los Angeles Times team managed to add a bite or two of information on this issue without distracting from the central point of its story, which was to give readers a glimpse of this hidden part of Prince's life. The CNN story was just as solid in accomplishing this main goal, but its producers -- as often happens -- elected to punt rather than deal with this one somewhat complicated doctrinal detail.

Why? Who knows.

For example, Jews and Christians clash -- to say the least -- when they discuss doctrines describing the identity of Jesus and his role in the Godhead. Would journalists be tempted to say that Christians are "conservative" Jews? I think not.

In this case, God is -- literally -- in the details.

Categories: Main

Yes, the Austin American-Statesman sent a reporter to the Rev. Jordan Brown's church

Monday, April 25, 2016

For those who are curious, The Austin American-Statesman did send a reporter to the anticipated Sunday Church of Open Doors service to see if the Rev. Jordan Brown or any members of his "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window" flock decided to attend.

Even though the news report that resulted was short, and rather grammatically challenged, it did yield some interesting information for journalists and news consumers attempting to follow up on the hate-cake incident.

As I said in an early post (and in this past week's "Crossroads" podcast) I am convinced journalists covering Brown's lawsuit, and the resulting counter-suit by the legal team at Whole Foods, need to know if this shepherd does, in fact, have a flock. If so, who are the lay leaders who oversee his ministry?

So here is the top of the report in The American-Statesman:

A traditional Sunday gathering led by an Austin man who targeted Whole Foods Market with controversial, viral allegations that backfired last week didn’t hold its usual services today.Jordan Brown, who said he pastors a small group, the Church of Open Doors, didn’t have their usual meeting out of his East Austin apartment complex Sunday.

Now, take out the word "traditional" and then substitute "congregation" for "gathering" and that lede makes some sense. I really don't know what happened in the second sentence. It seems that something is missing.

The key fact here is that journalists still have had zero contact with anyone from the congregation. In fact, at this point, there is no on-the-record evidence that the church exists, other than Brown's statements.

The American-Statesman team reported that fact, indirectly:

Since Jan. 17, the group has held about a dozen Sunday noon meetings in the “Social Hub” room at the AMLI South Shore apartment complex at 1620 East Riverside Drive, according to the group’s Facebook page. But by early Sunday afternoon, the group held no such meeting and the room sat empty.An apartment complex worker said the group didn’t reserve this room this Sunday, and didn’t expect them to meet there “anymore” after Brown’s public claims were met with a swift response from Whole Foods.

Did the anonymous apartment worker say that previous services had been held at this location, as claimed at Brown's website for his church planting effort? What is the source of this worker's statement that future Church of Open Doors worship services in this small community room (see the picture with the newspaper report) are unlikely?

The site noticed that Brown has lowered his profile in other ways as well, noting that he has "deleted posts in which he described the cake and spoke of his lawsuit. That’s not all that has disappeared. The reverend has deleted his Twitter account, and even some sermons from his church have been pulled offline."

Actually, it appears that Brown's twitter account is back online, although it has not been updated since the hate-cake press conference. The twitter account for the church -- with 33 followers and 39 tweets in its three years of existence -- is still up and running.

Stay tuned. It does appear that some journalists in Texas are still watching this once-viral news story.

IMAGES: From Twitter.

Categories: Main

Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

Monday, April 25, 2016

It's an increasingly common habit -- a bad one -- to mix news with commentary. But the Tampa Bay Times yesterday was especially blatant, starting with the headline: "What about the coaches?"

The article is the third in less than a week on Christian clubs like Young Life, First Priority and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and their activities in public schools. The Times pretty agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint to Hillsborough County Public Schools: Adults were evangelizing on campus through the clubs, thus breaching the constitutional separation of church and state; and school officials, including coaches, were letting them. Also, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had two misdemeanor convictions on his record.

All of that is more than fair game for a newspaper to check out. And in fairness, it talked to David Gaskill of FCA, in a story on Thursday. That’s an improvement over January, when the Times talked to the accusers but none of the defenders.  

But it's hard to read yesterday's story as anything more than a j'accuse, when it starts with:

A complaint alleging illegal activities on the part of a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did not just point the finger at self-styled campus minister David Gaskill.It also named -- sometimes with photographic evidence -- coaches who either invited Gaskill to lead the students in prayer or participated with them. Those named in the complaint include Freedom High School football coaches Todd Donahoe and Cedric Smith; Tampa Bay Technical High School wrestling coach Edward Bayonet, Freedom girls basketball coach Laura Pacholke, Wharton High School wrestling coach David Mitchell and Middleton High School baseball coach Jim Macaluso.Will the district investigate these coaches too?

The article gives the answer immediately: "They will not." Instead, they and other school employees who work with volunteers will get training on adherence to the First Amendment. A school board member adds that FFRF is "very happy with the district's response."  So why were the coaches the focus of the lede? Is this something like gospel shaming? (And why didn’t the Times ask FFRF if they really are satisfied?)

There's some follow-up with the cast from past articles: officials of the school district, a local rabbi and a representative of the Jewish Community Relations Council. Also as in past articles, the story brings up First Priority and Idlewild Baptist Church (which hosted training for school administrators). And same as last year, the paper quotes no one at either organization. Nor, for that matter, does it quote any of the six coaches it called out.

Then the story veers from news style into editorial style, speaking in the first person plural: "We will publish that essay when it is available," and "We also asked permission to attend Monday's training session." And when the paper is invited to sit in on a meeting, "We'd love to, we said."

Why, in the name of best practices, would a news story be allowed to shift voice into the royal "we"? The only shred of a warning I see, at least online, is the title "Gradebook" -- i.e., education news -- at the top of the page. Is that supposed to be a one-word signal for "At any moment, these stories may mutate into columns or editorials"?

At least the Thursday article fleshed out Gaskill's two convictions. One was possession of drug paraphernalia. The other was an unspecified "lesser charge" after being accused of stalking his ex-wife. Gaskill gets to say that the drug stuff belonged to a friend, but confessed he'd had a history of drug problems up to a decade ago. As for the stalking, he says he kept calling and texting his ex, trying to reconcile. At any rate, the newspaper says, he has been banned from Hillsborough campuses.

His defense is more fuzzy against those who accuse him of breaking the First Amendment. "I've spoken with thousands of kids," he says. "Nobody has ever once had a complaint" … and there are "certain people who are against God." I don't know if Gaskill actively dodged the questions, or the Times didn’t ask directly enough. Either way, he doesn't answer the constitutional issue that the article raises. Closer questioning might have helped.

Another question mark: The Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation says it was "contacted by someone affiliated with one of the schools." Who was that? Why wasn't he/she interviewed? Why name six coaches but not the initial accuser?

Sandwiched between those two stories is a Saturday roundup, which tries to add balance and context. It acknowledges that besides off-campus evangelistic activities, the clubs plant trees, help children read and mentor kids with dysfunctional families. The article agrees also that the federal Equal Access Act allows students to hold religious club meetings in public schools.

But it adds: "Some of it -- namely, activity led by adults -- results from school officials who do not understand the law, or who appreciate the contributions Christian organizations make to schools and students, or both."

And it pastes comments by school superintendent Jeff Eakins from a letter he wrote to the ACLU: "I genuinely believe people are capable of providing supportive services to our schools without proselytization or forcing their ideology on those they are serving." But he defends his policy toward Christian clubs as an aid to "preparing students for life."

Then the story airs complaints. The rabbi objects to "missionary" activity, and a Lutheran minister decries the "aggressive religious engagement" by Young Life and First Priority.

Bad move by one of the groups: "Rob Tolley, Executive Director of Young Life Tampa, declined to comment." Stonewalling doesn't make anyone look good. But what of First Priority and FCA? There's no hint that the Times tried to reach them for the Saturday piece.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Many of the points in this series look spot on. Unscreened people with arrest records should be kept away from schoolkids of any age. And many Christians would object if, say, Muslims or Mormons or Jehovah's Witnesses sought converts in schools. So guidelines need to be set and followed.

Having said that, the Tampa Bay Times has undeniably gotten caught up in its crusade -- closely following the script by the FFRF and the ACLU, turning a deaf ear to nearly all of the accused -- even saying "we," as if the entire newspaper is arrayed against the clubs. This may win friends from one side, but it will surely earn scowls on the other.

The newspaper may think that on some topics, it can get away with trying to manipulate your viewpoint. But professional ethics is what this series has been about. Shouldn't the Times be conscientious about its own?

Thumb photo: "Serf's UP," by Roger Sayles via (CC BY-ND).

Categories: Main

How liberal is this denomination? Canadians debating whether a pastor must believe in God

Monday, April 25, 2016

Atheist pastor sparks debate by 'irritating the church into the 21st century'

— The Guardian (@guardian) April 24, 2016

At first, this story reads like it must be news satire from The Onion.

Or, given the religious nature of the piece, maybe the Babylon Bee would be a more appropriate fit.

But actually, this in-depth report on whether a Christian pastor must believe in God is real news out of Canada, via The Guardian. And here's what kind of surprised me: It's fascinating and generally handles the subject matter well.

Let's start at the top:

TORONTO — There is not one mention of God during the 70-minute service at Toronto’s West Hill United church. Bibles are nowhere to be seen. The large steel cross – one of the few remaining religious symbols in this church – is hidden behind a cascade of rainbow streamers.But that is perhaps to be expected in a church led by an avowed atheist.“I do not believe in a theistic, supernatural being called God,” says Gretta Vosper, the United Church of Canada minister who has led West Hill since 1997. “I don’t believe in what I think 99.99% of the world thinks you mean when you use that word.” Tor her, God is instead a metaphor for goodness and a life lived with compassion and justice.Vosper’s outspoken commitment to a seemingly clashing set of beliefs has prompted turmoil in the open-minded United Church of Canada. A progressive Christian denomination that began ordaining women in Canada 80 years ago and for decades has allowed openly gay men and women to lead ministries, the church has been left questioning its boundaries.In the coming weeks, an unprecedented review will be carried out to determine whether Vosper can stay on as a minister. At its most basic level, the review will ask a simple question that’s likely to yield a complicated answer: can the United church of Canada have an atheist minister?For the 100-strong congregation at West Hill, the answer is an unabashed yes. Stripped of God and the Bible, services here are light on religious doctrine and instead emphasise moral teachings. The service begins with a nod to the First Nations land on which the church stands and goes on to mention human rights in Saudi Arabia, Syria and Palestine. Global concern is coupled with community-building, with members invited to share significant moments of the past week.

The writer does a nice job, it seems to me, of explaining the progressive theology of the United Church of Canada, which describes itself as Canada's largest Protestant denomination and claims to minister to more than 2 million people in about 3,000 congregations. 

(However, Wikipedia — to which the church website points readers for additional information -- notes that only about 139,000 people regularly attend services, evidence of the mainline denomination's precipitous numerical decline in recent decades. And then there is this from The Globe and Mail.)

Similarly, The Guardian takes readers inside the Toronto congregation and offers specific details on the beliefs (or lack thereof) of the atheist pastor. This section, for example, details Vosper's journey away from her original "metaphorical" belief in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit:

What followed was years of Vosper and her congregation retooling the service at West Hill. References to God and Jesus became talk of love and compassion and prayer was replaced with community sharing time. The removal of the Lord’s Prayer in 2008 proved to be a critical test, sending attendance plunging from 120 people to 40 and leaving the church’s financial strength in tatters. “The Lord’s Prayer was the last thing in the service that still held them to previous generations of church,” says Vosper. “So it became the lightning rod for all of that loss.”Throughout this time Vosper couched her strong beliefs in linguistic gymnastics, describing herself as a non-theist and, later, a theological non-realist. In 2013, moved by the case of Bangladeshi bloggers facing persecution over their reportedly atheist views, Vosper began calling herself an atheist. “I felt it was an act of solidarity,” she says, likening it to the use of the word feminist to in the 1970s. “If I shelter myself by not using that term, that’s unfair to everyone who is being maligned by the use of that term.”

Later, the story quotes a few of the remaining members, including one who suggests that eliminating belief in God has helped the congregation "buck the wider trend of declining attendance." (Sorry, but that logic made me smile. This small congregation is a sign of growth?)

So what would make this story better?

Some input from former members, for one thing: What happened to those who left the church? What do they say about the notion of an atheist pastor of a Christian church?

Regular atheists would be another interesting source: What do they think of a self-professed atheist leading a Christian church?

Finally, I'd love to see a theological expert or two quoted on where this scenario fits into the bigger picture of Christianity in Canada and the U.S.: Is this case an outlier or a sign of things to come? Maybe one sentence on the larger framework of growth vs. decline?

Categories: Main

Mirror-image news: SMU activists suffer attack which draws zero news coverage

Monday, April 25, 2016

Let's play the mirror-image news game again, shall we? Click here for previous examples.

As always, the goal is to look at a story that received next to zero attention, or perhaps received waves of attention, and then try to imagine what would have happened if a few details were switched and journalists were dealing with a different issue on the opposite side of America's so-called culture wars.

This time around, let's say that the AIDS memorial quilt was displayed in Dallas in a high-profile location that would be sure to generate lots of attention -- like the center of campus at Southern Methodist University. Then, during the middle of the night, a pack of counter-protesters descended on this display and attacked it, doing major damage.

Would this story have received major coverage in local media, such as The Dallas Morning News? We will take into account the fact that displays of the AIDS quilt have been going on for decades and, thus, the event itself may not have been a major news story. But would an attack on the quilt be news?

It's safe to say that this attack would have drawn coverage. Correct?

Now, let's flip the news mirror around and consider these details from a story published by the alternative -- yes, conservative -- website. The headline: "Pro-Abortion Students at SMU Vandalize Display of 3,000 Crosses to Remember Aborted Babies."

Here is the key material at the top of this advocacy-publication report, which is packed with slanted language.

It's important to note that this story openly states that protest displays of this kind by the group Mustangs for Life have been staged at this location for years.

The pro-life students spent hours setting up the display and accompanied it with signs explaining what it was all about: “There are 2,904 abortions per day in the USA” and “Memorial of Innocents: 1 Cross = 1 Life Lost to Abortion Today”.Mustangs for Life jumped through all the hoops at the school to make sure they were allowed to do this and granted proper permission.The display was set up on Sunday evening about 7:30 pm and done by 9 pm. Only a couple hours later, in the middle of the night, all of the crosses had been vandalized and torn down. All of them.One of the members got a call from someone who said that she saw all the crosses were kicked down. The members ran over to the display where indeed the display was vandalized. The Mustangs for Life filed a campus police report on Sunday night and decided to press charges, so an investigation has been opened.

That was not the end of the story. The Mustangs for Life activists (SMU's sports mascot is a Mustang) returned at 6 a.m. and repaired their display, cross by cross.

They also took appropriate steps to guard the protest site, which would -- if journalists were responding -- make second-day coverage easier. All of this could be seen in social-media, of course.

The group has since received threats of more violence on the app Yik Yak and one person threatened to burn down the display. They have had their members take shifts at the display, some even staying outside at 2:30am this morning. Campus police have also been stationed near the display to quell any vandalism.

So did this story receive any attention from the city's major newsroom? The answer is "no."

Now, as I have mentioned, it is easy to make a case that this is not news because this protest has been staged in the past. However, if one searches for "Mustangs for Life" at the News website the result is this -- zippo. So there has been no coverage in the past, either. Did I mess up this search somehow?

Search the same site for "AIDS quilt" and one gets lots of information, including five stories from 2015.

The "Memorial of Innocents" display, and the attack on it, did receive coverage at The Daily Campus, the SMU student newspaper. This story included, as it should, the views of students who disagreed with the Mustangs for Life message. They argued -- in language similar to similar campus debates currently in the news -- that the display triggered feelings of guilt and shame and should not have been allowed in the first place, a case that is easier to make on a private campus, such as SMU, with allows limitations on the First Amendment.

There was also this intriguing detail:

Two students vandalized the display after it was set up later that night. Police stopped them and asked if they were supposed to be there, to which the students responded “yes.”

So, here is our mirror-image question: Would an attack on the AIDS quilt have received local news coverage, this year or in the past?

Note that we are dealing with two emotional symbols, each linked to hot-button social issues that have been around for decades.

It's easy, and accurate, to say that covered this story for ideological reasons. The Daily Campus covered the event because it was news on campus.

So where does this put The Dallas Morning News? The most likely answer is that the editors did not assign coverage since this is "old news," seeing as how this is protest that has been held (and perhaps even attacked) in the past. But look at the mirror image. Would an attack on the AIDS quilt have been news? Why or why not?

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Weekend think piece: Tips for how to think your way through Pope Francis coverage

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Let's get one thing clear right up front about this post. I have no intention of comparing Adolph Hitler with Pope Francis. Got that?

However, long ago -- while at graduate school at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign -- I did a readings course about post-Holocaust trends in world Judaism. You can't read about that horror without reading about Hitler.

I wish I could remember who said this, because I would like to give full credit, but one of the authors I read said that, most of the time, commentaries about Hitler almost always tell you more about the writers than about Hitler. I know I ran into this concept again years later when I interviewed journalist Ron Rosenbaum, author of "Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil."

What does this have to do with Francis?

Journalists on the religion beat, news-consumers at large, please ask yourself this question: When you stop and think about the public impact of Pope Francis, how much are you reacting to the pope's own words, as opposed to news-media (and church media) commentaries about his words? When you read elite media coverage of a new statement by the pope, are you confident that you know what the pope said as a whole, in context, as opposed to one or two sentences that have been used to create a headline?

With these questions in mind, please consider this new think piece from The National Catholic Register by Sister Theresa Aletheia Noble, which ran under the headline, "5 Ways to Avoid Unhelpful Pope Francis “Mind Reading." Here is her overture:

It has been interesting to see the varied reactions to Amoris Laetitia, or The Joy of Love, the new document by Pope Francis on the family. I have learned a lot from the positive, the negative, and the mixed reviews. But I also think that some of the responses to the document, positive and negative, have been a disservice to the Church. After digging around online just a day after the document was released I had to stop because I was feeling depressed and full of despair, not because of the document itself but because of the negativity of some writers, the effusive praise of others (who see only their own agenda in anything the pope says or does), the lies in many of the headlines, and the general confusion.Disturbed by the unrest in my soul, I decided to choose to read articles online based on a few rules of thumb. These guidelines helped me to avoid reactions to the document that are unhelpful. I particularly wanted to stay away from anything that contained many assumptions and conjectures and employed what I call a “mind reading” approach to Pope Francis.

Mind reading is a wonderful way of describing what has been happening with many of this pope's writings -- especially the crucial press coverage that takes place BEFORE a papal document is even released that, still, tends to frame the expectations (usually with material from off-the-record sources).

So here are a few of Sister Theresa's tips. You will want to read them all:

1. Avoid Assumptions without Evidence: When I read articles on the new document, I ask myself, “What are the assumptions the author has made about Pope Francis and his intentions?” It is fine to wonder what is motivating another person. But assessments must be based on what the person actually says and what he or she actually does. The articles that take huge liberties in their assumptions about Pope Francis’ intentions are usually not based on hard evidence.2. Look for People Who Give the Benefit of the Doubt: When I first entered the convent, I was amazed at some sisters who were able to respond to difficult situations by seeing things in the best possible light and to make excuses for other people. These sisters are not naïve; they realize that their positive, hopeful assessments may be wrong but they also realize that negative, worst-case-scenario assessments don’t help any situation. ...3. Shun Stereotypes: If an article stereotypes Pope Francis as a “liberal” or a “conservative,” it’s probably best to just stop reading it. Many of these assessments of Pope Francis are based on a narrow point of view that is rigidly rooted in American politics and the culture of the United States. We forget that Pope Francis is a universal figure in the Catholic Church, not the pope of the United States. When he seems to speak like he is a member of one political party or another, it’s important to remember that this means absolutely nothing outside of the United States. ...

Like I said, read it all.

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