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Updated: 24 min 47 sec ago

CNN scores hit with its well-sourced take on Donald Trump, guilt and the Gospel

6 hours 20 min ago

It’s rare that an article about Donald Trump’s faith can say something new and fresh, yet a recent piece managed to pull that off. It helped that the reporter had some very good sources.

The headline was pretty apropos: “The guilt-free gospel of Donald Trump.” (A similar piece about Hillary might, as my colleague Jim Davis has suggested, have a headline like "Hillary Clinton offers gospel-free guilt.") 

There's been a lot written about the puzzle that is Donald Trump's religious beliefs, but this story manages to break some new ground less than three weeks from Election Day. 

(CNN) -- Donald Trump was ashamed -- contrite even -- as he spoke to Paula White hours after the video of him bragging about groping women was released."I heard it in his voice," said White, a Florida pastor who, outside of Trump's family, is his closest spiritual confidant. "He was embarrassed." ...During his phone call with White, the GOP nominee said he regretted his remarks and was grateful for the evangelicals still supporting him. Later that evening, he publicly apologized in a video that was remarkably free from the usual rituals enacted by disgraced politicians.Trump didn't stand beside his wife, Melania. He didn't ask for forgiveness. He didn't lament that he had fallen under sin's sway but that by God's grace and with his family's support he hoped to earn a second chance. In fact, Trump didn't mention faith, family or reconciliation at all.

The article goes on to cite several of Trump’s vapid responses to questions about religion.

Trump's attempts at public religion have been awkward, at best. He said he does not ask for forgiveness and "does not bring God into that picture" when he makes mistakes. He has tried to put money in the Communion plate and referred to the sacrament as "my little wine" and "my little cracker." He mispronounced a book of the Bible, and when asked about his favorite verse, has either deferred or, in one case, cited "an eye for an eye," an Old Testament revenge scheme specifically condemned by Christ. (Turn the other cheek, Jesus said.)

The reporter then tells about Trump’s history with the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the minister at Marble Collegiate Church in Manhattan who was into positive thinking way before the world ever heard of Joel Osteen. 

Maybe this chapter in Trump's past has been written about elsewhere, but I didn’t know this background, so it explained Trump’s faith –- such as it is –- to me.  

One thing that some of you under 50 might not remember is that Peale-like spirituality was a big thing back in the 1950s and 60s, when Trump was in his formative years. Early Baby Boomers like him (and Hillary) grew up in an era where this sort of masculine Protestantism was quite popular. Not everyone got swept up in the Jesus movement or in Woodstock.

The reporter got some very good quotes from Paula White, Trump’s spiritual mentor. In the days when I covered her, getting through to Paula was a lot of work, so I appreciated the fresh comments. At the same time, I loved the Kate Bowler quote about why Trump is attracted to Paula:

"She's blonde and cute and perky and endlessly optimistic."

Well, yes, that’s true. There is that. And also true that Paula is a 21st century edition of Peale.

All good points. But as the article closes, one gets the impression that inside, Trump is actually quite empty.

"I don't like to analyze myself," Trump told biographer D'Antonio, "because I might not like what I see." In recent years, Trump has said that he attends church occasionally, on Christmas, Easter and "special occasions," but that he is too busy on most Sundays.He is no longer a member of Marble Collegiate or First Presbyterian in Queens, and it's hard to picture him sitting through a service, or confessing his sins before a congregation, or listening, in quiet hours of Trump Tower, for the still, small voice of God.Trump puts his faith in work, and waits upon the whirlwind.

I didn't quite get the last few words. "Reaps the whirlwind" is more like it. One huge difference between him and his opponent is that Clinton has used religion as part of her scenery since Bill was in the White House. Trump is so unfamiliar with religion, he doesn't know how to manipulate it. His attempts to dip into that world are so transparent, they are amusing to everyone who knows what 'Two Corinthians' means (OK, click here for a reminder about that whole media storm).

If you read the piece, be sure to click on the “theology of Trump” video attached to it. It's hard to know what to like best or least: Someone who manipulates faith language or someone who doesn't even know the language.

Had Trump spent more years as a politician, surely he would have come up with a personal religion narrative much earlier in the game. As it is, he's had to assemble one on the road, as it were. But to be fair, has Hillary spent time waiting on the "still, small voice of God" herself? I've never seen any sign of it.

CNN managed to deliver a Trump profile that's snark-free. These days, that's a rare find indeed. 

Categories: Main

News alert: Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda; journalists might consider that

10 hours 10 min ago

News alert: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda.

For those paying attention, that advocacy group's name provides a clear indication of that agenda.

Why am I stating the obvious? Because in reading some recent news reports, journalists seem to treat the Freedom From Religion Foundation as if it's an unbiased expert source on church-and-state legal questions.

Let's consider, for example, the Washington Post's recent story on a high school football coach who baptized a player:

An emerging -- and unconstitutional -- trend: High school football coaches baptizing their players at public schools

— Julie Zauzmer (@JulieZauzmer) October 21, 2016

The above tweet is from the Post reporter who produced the story. So in other words, the journalist agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation that what's happening is "unconstitutional."

Except that the tweet is inaccurate. The coach didn't baptize the player at a public school, according to the Post's own story:

The Newton school district, however, is sticking by Coach Smith’s actions. In a statement, the school said that the baptism happened off school property — outside a dentist’s office, about a block away from the school, Superintendent Virginia Young told The Post. “The District feels this is a private matter of choice for that student. Any additional Newton Municipal School District students that attended the baptism did so as their own voluntary act,” the school’s statement said.

The Jackson Clarion-Ledger in Mississippi also notes that the baptism didn't occur at a public school:

When Newton High senior Garrick Alford saw Ryan Smith in the school’s cafeteria one day in early September, the middle linebacker informed the Tigers’ head football coach he wanted to discuss two things, as Smith recalls.The first subject was football-related. Alford wanted to run the ball. In response, Smith said they would work on that during practice.The second topic was unrelated to football. Alford, as Smith recalls, wanted to be saved.After conversations over the course of the following couple of weeks, Alford decided in Smith’s office at the school that he wanted to be baptized.Smith then asked Alford which church he wanted to be baptized in. Alford had an alternative preference. He wanted to be baptized outside and surrounded by his football teammates.That’s how on an afternoon last month Smith ended up dunking Alford in a plastic tub of water, baptizing him in the name of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit outside a dentist office across the road from where the Tigers practice.

The Post headline, meanwhile, refers to "Baptisms on the football field." I'll admit that it makes for nice clickbait. But how is that headline accurate for a baptism that took place neither on public school property nor "on the football field?"

But that twisting of facts reflects the Post's apparent willingness to accept the Freedom From Religion Foundation's point of view as the only one that matters in this story. 

The Freedom From Religion Foundation has sent a letter claiming that "This appearance of school sponsorship of a religious message violates the Establishment Cause of the First Amendment,” so that must be the case, right?

Otherwise, might the newspaper contact a legal advocate who defends the religious freedom of school employees — a group such as the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Liberty Institute perhaps? Yes, those groups have an agenda, too. However, if the Post's agenda is fair, balanced journalism, as opposed to taking sides and declaring that the coach's action is "unconstitutional," then quoting one of those groups, too, would make sense.

In addition, the Post might contact independent church-state experts — law professors versed on religious freedom, for example — to weigh in from a more neutral position. Questions could include: Is this an open-and-shut case like the Freedom From Religion Foundation maintains? Or is it a complicated matter with competing rights on the part of the coach, students and others?

Part of the problem, I suspect, is that journalists today are producing so many quick-hit stories trying to get clicks that they miss the normal editing process that would catch some of the obvious issues I've highlighted above.

That seems to be case in the story's final paragraph:

Smith, who conducted the baptism, and his wife Kristi, who posted the video online, both spoke to The Post briefly on Friday but were not immediately available to discuss the baptism. The video has been shared on Facebook nearly 2,000 times and viewed more than 109,000 times.

If they "spoke briefly," what exactly did they say? Give the reporter credit for contacting the coach and his wife, but the description above provides no helpful information at all for readers. If they simply answered the phone and declined to comment, why not say that? 

Image via Facebook video of baptism

Categories: Main

Hey, Washington Post political scribes: So religion will have zero impact in GOP civil war?

13 hours 32 min ago

Throughout this depressing White House campaign, Washington Post coverage has been split in a really interesting way when dealing with religion and American politics. This trend continued in a new piece that ran with this headline: "As Trump delivers his Gettysburg address, Republicans prepare for a civil war."

As has been the norm among elite news media, the Post has run its share of breathless "Evangelicals love Donald Trump!" reports.

That's fine. Strong support for Trump among a significant minority of white evangelicals has been a major trend, along with the fact that many others in that camp have reluctantly concluded (Christianity Today report here) that they have to vote for the Donald in order to accomplish their primary goal -- defeating Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the moral and cultural left.

However, when dealing with the politics of the White House race, the Post political desk has basically ignored the role of religious faith in both political parties and among the surprisingly large number of #NeverTrump #NeverHillary voters who have frantically been seeking third-party options. This "horse race" coverage has been amazingly religion free.

With that in mind, let's look at a key early chunk of the Post Gettysburg story:

It was ironic that Trump chose Gettysburg, the site of one of the most decisive battles of the Civil War, for his speech. Win or lose, Republicans are probably headed toward a civil war of their own, a period of conflict and turmoil and a reckoning of potentially historic significance. That debate has already begun, as the tension between Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan has shown throughout the year. It will only intensify after Nov. 8. ...The Republican presidential nominee has not only failed to unify the GOP; but his candidacy has also intensified long-standing hostility toward the party establishment among the grass-roots forces backing him. That tension has made it harder to find a solution to a major problem: The Republican coalition now represents growing shares of the declining parts of the electorate -- the inverse of what an aspiring majority party should want.

Note the "grass-roots" reference.

That leads me to ask a simple question based on trends in American political life since 1973 or so: If the GOP is about to have a civil war (and I agree that this is likely), then does it matter where most white evangelicals, Mormons, pro-Catechism Catholics and other culturally conservatives go? Can anyone imagine grass-roots GOP politics without millions of religious conservatives showing up in primaries and at the polls? Are country-club and corporate folks enough?

Forget about the fading organizations of the Religious Right for a moment.

Just think about the people (and their children) in those red pews and pulpits. Where will those people (and their votes) go now and in the near and distant future?

You see, while the number of "nones" and secularists is on the rise -- a very important trend, especially for Democrats -- the percentage of truly religiously committed Americans is not changing that much. What is shrinking is the mushy middle of the cultural and religious spectrum in American life.

Now, back to the Post report. As is often the case, it was hooked to a report by the Pew Research Center, as in: “The Parties on the Eve of the 2016 Election: Two Coalitions, Moving Farther Apart.” Note the three elements of the Pew analysis:

The major demographic changes are well known. The United States is becoming more diverse racially and ethnically, better educated overall and with a population that is aging. Pew’s analysis found the following: “The Democratic Party is becoming less white, less religious and better-educated at a faster rate than the country as a whole, while aging at a slower rate. Within the GOP, the pattern is the reverse.”

So we are dealing with race, religion and education.

Anyone want to guess which one of those three important factors in American life is ignored in the rest of this Post political-desk report? You got it.

Obviously, one of the big stories of the year is the move by millions of blue-collar Americans, normally a key piece of the Democratic Party coalition, into the Trump army. The Democrats are certainly getting more than their share of votes among the emerging American techno-upper class and super-educated elites. That's important. The Democrats have coalition issues of their own. Right, feel the Bern soldiers?

Why is Clinton's vote total going to be somewhere in the high- to mid-40 percent range? Why not a smashing majority for one of America's best known politicians (as she candidly stated on one memorable occasion)? What are the other forces that are in play?

All I am asking is this: If (a) the cultural coalitions in the two parties are moving further and further apart and (b) the GOP is about to have a civil war, then (c) why is the Post political team ignoring the role of religious and moral issues in that story?

Just asking. Again and again and again.

Categories: Main

What four-letter words are now OK? What politically-correct doctrines are mandatory?

Sunday, October 23, 2016

It doesn’t rank with July 4, Dec. 7 or 9-11, but Oct. 8, 2016, is a journalistic date to remember, if one cares about the tone and content of journalism and, thus, American public discourse.

There it was in an A1 lead in The New York Times.

The F-bomb.

No “expletive deleted,” no euphemism, no cautious dashes. In this article a newspaper so dignified it uses honorifics in second references (“Mr. Hitler”) included the B-word, P-word, and T-word in the first four paragraphs above the fold.

What hath Citizen Donald Trump wrought? 

Dirty words can still hit broadcasters with federal government wrath. Yet Boston-NYC-DC and Left Coast editors (not so much in Flyover Country) are certainly influenced by the cultural coarsening from showbiz. Now there’s academic imprimatur from cognitive science professor Benjamin Bergen, whose new book “What the F” contends that uttering four-letter words is good for your mental health.

Journalists are still coming to terms with the grammatically incorrect but politically correct pronoun shift as they/them/their supplant the dreaded he/she/her/his. One Times contributor has employed the xe/xim/xir pronoun plan devised by the transgender movement, and another informs us that in this “age of gender fluidity” the recently coined “cisgender” is now the “preferred term” for those whose sex is defined the old-fashioned way, by anatomy, not psychological “sense of gender.”

“Cisgender,” New York Post columnist Maureen Callahan alerts us, is among the neologisms added this year by, alongside “misgender” (mistaking someone’s preferred gender identity) and “panromantic” (“romantically attracted to people of all sexual orientations and gender identities”). Also new to the lexicon is “woke,” to label someone who’s not merely awakened to his/her/their “white privilege” but super-vigilant about “systemic injustices and prejudices.”

Ignoring the new pronouns can get you in trouble, perhaps even in pews and pulpits.

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination announced Sept. 1 that an amended statute makes “gender identity” a “protected class in places of public accommodations” so it’s now illegal to ignore employees’ preferred “gender appropriate pronouns” as well as their toilet and locker-room choices. If “prejudice” is involved, an infraction becomes a “hate crime.” Will activists demand this language shift at the Boston Globe, the Boston Herald or WBZ?

So why write about this at GetReligion?

Journalists, please note that religious groups are not exempt. Massachusetts doctrine redefines any local church as a “public accommodation” covered by the law if it holds "secular" events “such as a spaghetti supper” open to the general public. That includes most congregations, and they’re required to practice not only pronoun protocol but non-discriminatory hiring. What happens if doctrines discussed in sermons clash with the new orthodoxy?

New formulations have broken out in The Christian Century, biweekly bible of “mainline” Protestantism. The August 17 edition featured a testimonial by Emily Heath, a United Church of Christ pastor in New Hampshire, whose “birth sex” is female but is self-described as “genderqueer” or “gender nonconforming” or “nonbinary.” That is, “while I am comfortable living in a female body I present in a typically masculine manner.” Heath therefore lives in “a same-sex marriage but not a same-gender one.”

Also, in case you haven’t been keeping up, that old LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) formulation has been expanded to LGBTQIA, for instance  at Lehigh University and Vassar College, and LGBTQQIAA on the Amherst campus. The added initials stand for queer, questioning, intersex, asexual and “ally” of all the above.

Recall as well the news flurry back when Facebook provided 56 custom choices on gender identity. Many options are simply variations on a theme, for example 10 riffs on “cis” and 26 on “trans.” Then there’s agender, androgyne, bigender, FTM, gender fluid, gender variant, intersex, MTF, neutrois, non-binary, pangender, two-spirit, and of course “neither” and "other.”

Copy editors need to be woke about all this (as well as religion-beat pros).

Categories: Main

The Big 12 hits stop button on expansion: So ESPN avoids faith issue in new coverage?

Saturday, October 22, 2016

I grew up in Texas during the glory days of the old Southwest Conference (which was a pretty tough time to be a Baylor University fan, until the legendary Grant Teaff came along). Thus, even though I live in the heart of SEC Country, I still pay close attention to what is happening over in the Big 12 (yes, which currently has 10 members).

At the moment -- in terms of journalism -- there is much more to Big 12 gazing than watching football. Yes, there is a religion-news hook here. The question of whether the Big 12 will add new members to get back to 12 has turned, in part, into yet another battle between LGBTQ activists and allies of traditional religious groups.

Notice that I did not say this is a religious-liberty conflict.

The Big 12 is, of course, not a government agency. We are talking about a private, voluntary association of schools and, thus, the conference's leaders are pretty much free to create and tweak their membership requirements whenever and however they choose to do so. Voluntary associations -- left and right -- can define their own rules and, well, doctrines.

This brings us to the Big 12 candidacy of Brigham Young University and, in the long run, it's easy to see questions being raised about the Big 12 status of charter-member Baylor. Yes, this is another story linked to religious private schools having the right to promote and even protect the religious doctrines on which they were founded. Hold that thought.

As always, if is good to pay close attention to the ESPN coverage of this controversy. It's significant that the BYU controversy received zero ink in the most recent report on the Big 12 decision not to expand. Here is the key material from the top of that report:

Even though the Big 12 announced that its decision not to expand was unanimous, sources told ESPN on Tuesday there were schools that ultimately agreed to go along with the plan when it became obvious the conference would not reach the supermajority needed to expand.In a 714-word league memo covering the league's talking points, obtained by ESPN, the first two items instructed officials to "Indicate the Board arrived at a "Unanimous Consensus" and say "the Board was unanimous in its desire and commitment to stay at 10 members."The internal Big 12 memo also suggested conference officials not "indicate that TV influenced [its] decision" and that the Big 12 was not "psychologically disadvantaged" because it didn't expand.

What schools were being considered?

The Big 12 initially considered 19 schools and that list was trimmed to 11 -- Air Force, BYU, UCF, Cincinnati, Colorado State, UConn, Houston, Rice, South Florida, SMU and Tulane -- all of which conducted in-person meetings with conference officials in Dallas last month.

If you follow college football at all, it's easy to see that the University of Houstonand BYU would be at the top of that list, in terms of BYU's national following and, with Houston, the potential to reach a massive TV market. In other words, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has lots of members all over the place and UH is located in Houston. #DUH

This ESPN report also included a very interesting pair of lists that were distributed after the meeting. One list told officials from Big 12 members what to say about this decision and the other told them what topics to avoid. Here is that second list.

Do not:

• Say we are at a competitive disadvantage.• Say revenue determines strength.• Say expansion is dilutive.• Say candidates were not deemed Power 5 worthy.• Refer to any specific expansion candidate/school by name.• Indicate that TV influenced decision.• [Say] we are psychologically disadvantaged.• Discuss 2024-25 as a grant of rights issues.

That's an interesting list, especially when you compare this with a previous ESPN report on what was happening during crunch time, as the Big 12 meetings drew near. In that article, BYU received its own sub-headline, in the list of issues to be resolved. As in:

Months ago, BYU was viewed as the frontrunner in any Big 12 expansion scenario. With a passionate national fan base, strong football tradition, top-35 TV market in Salt Lake City and solid academic credentials, BYU checked every box of the criteria the Big 12 said it would be analyzing.

You can hear the word "but" is just ahead.

But the LGBT community's opposition to BYU because of its honor code has turned BYU's candidacy "toxic," as one Big 12 insider characterized it. "Their appeal doesn't outweigh the baggage, even though the appeal is great," another said.

How many schools would it take to block expansion? That would be two out of the 10 schools. And:

Earlier this month, Iowa State's student government passed a resolution opposing a BYU Big 12 invite, noting that "BYU's discriminatory policies and practices are inconsistent with the values of the Big 12."

But on the other side of the debate:

"BYU makes all the sense in the world from a football perspective," said one Big 12 source.Given the current climate, however, that might not be enough for the Cougars to get an invitation, at least without some give on its honor code.

So, if a doctrinal code is out of line if it stresses that sex outside of traditional marriage is a sin, then what is Baylor's status -- short- and long-term -- in this Power 5 conference? After all, even after recent changes (leading to major press coverage and the this earlier GetReligion post) the Baylor policy handbook still contains a reference to the Baptist Faith and Message document of 1963, which teaches:

Marriage is the uniting of one man and one woman in covenant commitment for a lifetime. It is Gods unique gift to reveal the union between Christ and His church, and to provide for the man and the woman in marriage the framework for intimate companionship, the channel for sexual expression according to biblical standards, and the means for procreation of the human race.

So here, for sports journalists and others, is the big question lurking in the background as this story rolls on, and you know debates about this topic will continue.

Did Big 12 officials decide that adding BYU would create a critical mass on the LGBTQ issue? Thus, it was best to play it safe. I mean, was this topic -- which received major attention in that earlier ESPN story and elsewhere in the mainstream (and gay) press -- too hot to even be included in the "do not discuss" PR list?

Once again let me stress: The Big 12 is a private, voluntary association. It is perfectly free to change its membership requirements. Also, private religious schools -- such as BYU and Baylor -- are currently free, under the First Amendment, to defend the doctrines that define life on their campuses.

Journalists: The question is whether the powers that be in big-money sports will continue to tolerate religious groups that teach doctrines that clash with Sexual Revolution orthodoxy. There is no away around that clash and that clash is a big, big story in American sports, religion and culture.

Categories: Main

Falwell, Trump and the Christian college press: Yes, some leaders prefer PR over hard news

Friday, October 21, 2016

So what, precisely, is the history of that famous -- some would say cynical -- quote about the freedom of the press and who gets to exercise that right and who does not?

I'm referring to something that I ad-libbed into this week's Crossroads podcast. This week's discussion with host Todd Wilken (click here to tune that in) focuses on the mini-media storm about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his decision to quash a column critical of Donald Trump (his "locker-room" remarks about women, to be precise) in the campus newspaper, The Champion.

You can find several versions of the quote, as demonstrated by this entry at the "Quote Investigator" website:

(1) Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.
(2) Freedom of the press is confined to the people who own one.
(3) Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.
(4) Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.

As often happens in live recording sessions, when one is 60-something years old, I could not remember the person who originated this famous quotation, whatever it is. I almost said "H. L. Mencken," which appears to be a common mistake. The folks at Quote Investigator noted:

An exact match to the fourth expression was printed in the “The New Yorker” magazine in 1960. A.J. Liebling wrote an essay titled “The Wayward Press: Do You Belong in Journalism?” that included the following passage. Boldface has been added to excerpts:"The best thing Congress could do to keep more newspapers going would be to raise the capital-gains tax to the level of the income tax. (Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.) There are irresistible reasons for a businessman either to buy or to sell, and anybody who owns the price of a newspaper nowadays must be a businessman."

Ah, but note that this quote is between parentheses. Was he paraphrasing something he read elsewhere? The QI team noted that there are similar ideas in articles a few decades earlier.

What does this have to do with Falwell, Liberty and the anti-Trump column?

In my earlier post, and in the podcast, I noted that private schools -- left and right -- are free to place all kinds of limitations on what happens in student media. These schools own and operate their student newspapers and, in this scenario at Liberty, Falwell is functioning as publisher, especially at a school where his family name is so central to the school's brand and history.

In its article on this case, Inside Higher Ed sought input from Frank D. LoMonte of the the Student Press Law Center:

"Of course, Liberty is a private university not subject to First Amendment constraints, but the best private universities voluntarily maintain a hands-off policy respectful of the integrity of independent journalism. Leaving aside the civic and educational benefits of fostering critical-thinking skills on a college campus, it's just self-defeating in the year 2016 to think you can suppress unwanted ideas by tearing articles out of paper newspapers. When you censor an article in the 21st century, you're just guaranteeing it a wider audience. I doubt many 20-year-old sports columnists are being read across the country, but by censoring Joel's column, the university has exponentially increased its impact. There's nothing more irresistible than journalism powerful authority figures don't want you to read."

Amen. The only thing I would add is that I have some doubts about what actually happens at the "best private universities" on these matters (and even at some state schools). This is especially true, in my experience, when campus administrators deal with cases involving what I called the "unholy trinity" of hot-button issues -- sex (think discipline cases involving students and/or faculty), drugs and donors. (Yes, in the earlier discussions I said/wrote "sex, finances and donors." I'm amending that.)

The key point I want to make, once again, is this: As LoMonte said, Falwell had the right to do what he did and many campus leaders share his point of view. When push comes to shove, lots of powerful people prefer PR over hard news. But is this PR default a wise choice in terms of journalism education? As I wrote in the original post:

As a journalism professor, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Liberty student journalists had actually attempted to report a legitimate news story on the same topic, going out of their way to interview campus voices on both sides of the Falwell-Trump story.Would Liberty administrators have agreed to be interviewed for such a story? Would that have been spiked? Also, what would have happened if student editors had chosen to print the offending column in a debate format, with another student journalist arguing the opposite point of view? Would Falwell have allowed that?

I'll confess my bias once again, as an educator who has taught (and advised newspapers) on two Christian college campuses and as someone who has worked with students and faculty at 50-plus of these schools. When it dealing with controversial issues, I have always pushed students to try to write hard-news stories on these topics, rather than resorting to splashy editorial columns based on their own opinions. Reporting comes first, then opinions.

As I have shared in the past, I was a participant in one of these campus-press fights in my student days at Baylor in the 1970s. That controversy focused on student news reporting about cases of sexual assault on or near campus.

Back in 2004, Baylor was back in the headlines (Texas journalists love stories about Baylor and sex) when student journalists published an editorial opposing the school's stance on gay marriage.

Yes, it was an editorial, not a news story.

Thus, in an "On Religion" column I offered the following commentary, after introducing this case study. This is long, but I would argue that it's relevant to the Liberty case:

Let's say that the students did not settle for writing an editorial about one of the most divisive issues in American culture. This quick-strike strategy was almost certainly a trial balloon seeking headlines in Texas and national newspapers.Let's say that, instead of writing that easy editorial, the editors assigned their best reporters to write two news stories.Like any religious institution in the era after James Davison Hunter's book "Culture Wars," Baylor has its own "camp of the progressives" (truth is personal and experiential) and a competing "camp of the orthodox" (truth is eternal and absolute). This is what the ongoing Baylor academic warfare is all about -- clashing views of what truth is and how one finds it.That's a good news story, if journalists take the time to report it.So let's say that the Lariat devotes one 1,200-word story to the views of Baylor "progressives," who explain why they think changing U.S. laws to favor same-sex marriage is a good thing. They also explain how this change might affect public education, free speech, freedom of assembly and religious liberty. They say what they have to say -- on the record.Then the newspaper devotes another 1,200-word story to the views of the "orthodox," those who believe that America should not embrace a fundamental redefinition of marriage. They address all the same questions – on the record.After these stories run, the editors might want to write an editorial. On an issue this hot, it would certainly help to hear dissenting voices as well.I think this is a more journalistic approach. After all, what's the purpose of having student journalists write editorials that cause news, before they have gone through the process of writing stories that report the news?I also think this approach would create a different kind of controversy, a more constructive kind. Instead of fostering academic guerrilla warfare and media stereotypes, this would put more information on the record.It might even lead to informed debate. And note that this approach would require leaders on both sides to put their views out in the open for the world to see -- including regents, donors, parents and potential students.This candor would be a good thing, at Baylor and in lots of other religious camps.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

From Muslim to Christian: The Atlantic offers sensitive look at Berlin community

Friday, October 21, 2016

When you share lentils and rice pilaf with people; when you attend church with them and talk to their pastor; when you pay a follow-up visit weeks later; you naturally convey a more intimate feel for your topic.  This traditional wisdom of journalism is used to great effect in The Atlantic's feature on Muslim converts to Christianity in Germany.

The writer, Laura Kasinof, talks to three Iranian refugees in Berlin. She gets an overview with their pastor, a Lutheran minister, as well as an interchurch leader. She conveys the jubilant mood at a worship service. And she attempts to hint at the size of the trend of conversion, although she doesn't get comprehensive figures.

Kasinof did the story on a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Whatever the sum, it was well spent. Her article is sensitive and thoughtful, and vastly superior to a similar piece in the Daily Beast this spring. As my colleague Julia Duin said then, the Beast somehow managed to link the trend to the U.S. presidential elections. Almost like clicking a nation-level selfie.

Astonishingly, the Daily Beast article has no quotes from any actual refugees, except those it borrowed from a newspaper. The Atlantic article doesn't neglect that vital facet:

The man who led the prayer said he had converted to Christianity in Iran after getting hold of a smuggled Farsi-language Bible. 'Before it was just theoretical to me, but now I can see it and feel it by my pastor’s kindness,' he said. Another said he converted in Iran because of an old neighbor who had been born Christian. Christians, he said, 'were kind people. In Islam, the person who does the killing and the person who dies yells Allahu Akbar,' he said. 'In Iran,' he noted, referring to the Arab occupation of Persia that began in the seventh century, 'we became Muslim by force.'

To be fair, the Atlantic story is a first-person account, which allows room for personal impressions. But Kasinof cannily interweaves them with concrete observations and quotes from her subjects:

I could feel a sort of happy chaos in the air that contrasted to the despair prevalent in refugee shelters I’d visited elsewhere in the country. Germans and asylum-seekers hung around drinking tea as children ran around playing; their arts projects hung across one wall. The church provides what is essentially pro-bono social work for refugees, assisting them with housing and other needs as they navigate Germany’s complex bureaucracy. People there were taking an active role in changing their situation or that of others, receiving a healthy dose of Christian optimism along with it.Martens said his congregation was 'lucky' to have its pews filled with asylum-seekers from the Muslim world. Being around them, he said, brought meaning to his life. 'It’s such a job to be together with these wonderful people who have risked so much for their Christian faith,' he said. 'I can hardly imagine [working] in a normal German congregation anymore.'

The writer shows a disarming honesty about her own spiritual status. She is offered communion but declines. Her friend, a new believer, doesn't understand, but she explains to us: "The outward trappings of Christianity I grew up with in a non-denominational church in rural Maryland, by contrast -- sing euphemisms rather than cursing (darn rather than damn), voting Republican, eating Chick-Fil-A, and doing nothing remotely Catholic -- were difficult to explain. "

That kind of candor is doubtlessly an asset for her work. When you open up to people, they’ll often open up to you.

Kasinof is honest also about possible reasons for the conversions. She respectfully quotes the converts themselves on "the redemptive power of Jesus’s story, and disillusionment with Islam." But she also notes the "more earthly forces potentially at work: Germany does not grant refugee status to Iranians as easily as it does Syrians and Iraqis." The main exception for Iranians is refugee status because of persecution for their beliefs, especially Christian beliefs.

She runs into trouble, as do other reporters, when seeking signs that mass conversions of Muslims to Christianity are a trend. She tells of churches starting Farsi-language services to accommodate the many new members. She gets opinions by a regional church official and her young subjects' pastor in Berlin. But she doesn't give numbers even at that church, Trinity Lutheran, only that it "hosts a large Iranian congregation." The most she says is that the service she attended had around 300 people, mostly Iranians.

Occasionally, Kasinof uses the first-person style to take rather excessive liberties: "During conversations with newly converted Iranian asylum-seekers, it struck me that being born again after arriving in Europe was not only an act of faith, but a practical matter: Europe is largely Christian, after all." Europe may seem largely Christian to her, but she didn’t get that from researchers or news stories. Not when the Pew Forum predicts that Christianity in Europe will lose about 100 million people by 2050. Not when The Atlantic itself says that the mocking Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is active throughout the continent.

Finally, the story has what I think is a sizable omission: reaction from a Muslim leader or two in Berlin. I wonder if they have any plans to re-convert the ex-Muslims? This should have been part of the story, because Kasinof says the four young men she interviewed "asked that I not provide the exact location nor give their full names."

She doesn't say why they asked that, apparently expecting us to know. We could guess that it's because of a quote attributed to the prophet Muhammad:  "Whoever changes his religion, kill him." But of course, we shouldn't have to guess. She should have spelled it out.

None of the above is meant to dampen my praise for this intimate, sincere look at these new believers. Many other media have caught a whiff of this new wind in Europe. Laura Kasinof may not have told us where the wind is blowing, but she gives us a touch of how it feels. Applause for her, and for The Atlantic.

Photo: Trinity Lutheran Church in Berlin; screenshot from the Witness, Mercy, Life Together blog for the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.


Categories: Main

Hello? Hello? Mindy Finn is a Jewish vice presidential candidate, so where's the ink?

Friday, October 21, 2016

Evan McMullin, an independent candidate for president based out of Utah, is a Mormon and he's chosen a very interesting vice presidential candidate: Mindy Finn, a businesswoman and tech entrepreneur living in Washington, D.C. She's an interesting pick, not the least because she's conservative and Jewish.

But don't expect any decent news take-outs about her faith. Even though it's been two weeks since she was announced as McMullin's running mate, there's been very little written about her and especially her beliefs. 

I can excuse the secular media not getting too worked up over Finn’s faith as she and her running mate are long shots at making a dent in this election (other than in Utah, of course). But Jewish media should be ahead of the game on this one.

Typical of the coverage-lite out there is this piece from the Forward

Independent presidential candidate Evan McMullin announced a Jewish running mate last weekend: Mindy Finn.Finn is a veteran GOP strategist who runs a feminist non-profit. She and McMullin, a former CIA agent, see their independent candidacy as a conservative alternative to Donald Trump.With their religious makeup -- a Mormon and a Jew -- and their outspokenness, the McMullin/Finn ticket has been gaining traction lately. Following Donald Trump’s struggles after the release of a tape on which he makes lewd comments about women, they might win Mormon-heavy Utah, where McMullin is now statistically tied with both Trump and Clinton.Their candidacy is a long shot -- they are not even on the ballot in all states -- but there technically is a way how it could work. If they manage to win one state and then both Trump and Clinton fail to get the 270 electoral votes necessary to become president, the House gets to decide the election.More realistically, Finn sees their campaign as the start of a new conservative movement. “We are a glimmer of light in what many have seen as a sea of darkness in this election,” she told Glamour.

I’m not sure why Finn only seems to rate Q&As with this crowd. That’s what Glamour also did for her here

Also, doesn’t Finn deserve a more nuanced interview than some softball questions from a news intern? About the Jewish angle, here’s what we get:

Finn is a proud Jewish woman and she says her faith helps her in guiding her decisions. Together with her running mate, a Mormon, she shares a deep appreciation of religious freedom for all. “Neither candidate on the stage at the debate Sunday night stood for religious freedom for all people (Christians, Muslims, Jews, etc.),” she told the Forward. “When you don’t protect the religious freedoms of one group, you don’t stand for it at all.”

Her faith guides her? She says she's pro-life, but can someone dig into what she means by that? Jews in this country, other than the Orthodox, poll as overwhelmingly pro-choice. So, there must have been some personal cost in breaking from the pack.

 Another piece the Forward ran on Finn is just as light on details, plus it’s an opinion piece. We can do better. There are several streams of Judaism. Is she Conservative, Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist or something else? What synagogue does she attend? Does she keep the Sabbath? Who is her rabbi and what does he or she say about Finn?

This article in the National Review had more substance as did this Washington Post column although neither really tackled her religion. This Jerusalem Post piece is only a little better because it mentions her thoughts on anti-Semitism.

There’s not a thing about her in the Houston Chronicle either, which is odd considering she was born and raised just north of the city.

As I’ve looked about, I can’t say I’m exactly stunned by the depth of coverage out there. I don’t totally blame reporters for going light on the religion angle. When you look at Finn’s Linkedin profile,  she lists arts and culture, economic empowerment, education, human rights, politics, science and technology as “causes Mindy cares about.” Faith is nowhere to be seen in that list. So if she's lighting Sabbath candles on Friday nights, she may not want to talk about it.

But reporters need to ask. After all, if Joe Lieberman’s (another vice presidential candidate) faith was written about (in that he kept the Jewish Sabbath for one thing) in some depth, someone needs to ask questions of hers. Then again, as we’ve written about here and here, Bernie Sanders made little of his Jewishness earlier this year. Maybe Finn is the same kind of “non-Jewish Jew.”

Whatever the case, inquiring minds want to know. The piece on her by the Jewish Telegraph Agency was pretty thin. Finn has to live somewhere close to a synagogue in DC. Which one is it?

Work your sources, people. Ask some questions. The truth is out there.   

Categories: Main

It's time to add the Saudi-Iranian proxy war in Yemen to the journalistic shopping list

Thursday, October 20, 2016

There's very little that unites Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran these days, but here's one thing that does. Both Muslim nations mix austere religion with political repression to the detriment of individual freedoms.

But you knew that, right? So why bring it up again? Because of the worsening situation in Yemen that started as a civil war but has morphed into an increasingly bloody proxy war between the two Middle East powerhouses.

There's much more to say about Yemen, and we'll do so below. But first here's a couple of examples of how far-reaching the heavy theocratic hands extend in Riyadh and Teheran.

I present them as examples of how misdirected the priorities of the two governments are.

The first example is this recent Washington Post story about a Saudi teen who became love struck online. Click here for the details of how he was arrested for flirting online -- "goofy" flirting, according to the Post -- with a California woman barely out of her teens that he asked to marry.

Abu Sin (the teen's nickname that in Arabic means "the toothless one"; referring to his misaligned teeth) was arrested for "violating decency and religious values," says the Post piece. It added:

His exchanges with Christina, according to lawyers, could violate the nation’s cybercrime law that bans creating online material that goes against morals and religious values, as well as its rigid interpretation of Islamic law.

Example two is this recent New York Times story, datelined Tehran, that opens with this snappy lede: "They won the match and mourned." Here's some of the text:

In a collision of international soccer scheduling and the eve of Ashura, Shiite Islam’s most solemn and sorrowful holiday, Iran played South Korea on Tuesday in a World Cup qualifying match held at Tehran’s 100,000-seat Azadi Stadium.The Iranians beat the South Koreans 1-0, normally a cause for rapt joy for the home-team crowd. But clerics and state officials had strongly urged the fans to avoid cheering for their players or celebrating the victory, which was deemed an insult to religious values.In a compromise, the religious authorities said the match could proceed if the stadium were turned into a place of mourning, with black banners commemorating the death of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, more than 1,300 years ago.State media told spectators to wear black. Instead of chanting a soccer cheer — “What will Iran do? Destroy them!” — they were urged to shout the mournful cry, “Ya Hossein!,” or “O Hussein!” if Iran scored.

Do these examples strike you as being silly? I think they are.

What's not silly, however, is how both nations are willing to sacrifice the lives of others to push their version of which branch of Islam should prevail (yes, I know, Saudis are Arabs and Iranians are Persians, so there's that complicating historical enmity as well).

Which brings us back to Yemen, where hapless civilians caught in the middle suffer the most. (Click here for background on the conflict.)

Yemen is the poorest nation in the Arab world. Today, it's another setting for the Sunni-Shiite rivalry stretching from Lebanon, through Syria and Iraq, to the Arabian Peninsular and beyond (Pakistan, for example).

And guess what?

Once again, the United States has become directly involved, not surprisingly in support of Saudi Arabia. See this Associated Press feature.

Which begs the following questions:

Why does Washington repeatedly find itself supporting and even fighting alongside one morally compromised nation after another in Middle East wars that appear endless and insolvable? And because we support the Saudi side's much criticized bombing campaign, what responsibility does the U.S. have to Yemeni civilians?

These questions are fertile ground for religion writers, who should be considering the moral dimensions of our government's actions.

Here's an assessment from the website of Mark Lavie, a former AP correspondent in Egypt and Israel, where he still lives. His concern here is the relative little attention the situation in Yemen receives in the American press.

Once again, the US is caught up in a no-win situation in the Mideast, because there are no good guys in the Yemen conflict, only combatants and civilian victims -- 10,000 dead so far, and millions in desperate need of food and other aid. Children are starving, the country has collapsed, but no one seems to notice.They might notice if this escalates into a war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, which is not out of the question, and then there will be many politicians in the West who will ask, where did THAT come from? Now you know.

It's true that Yemen has been under-covered. But it's also true that this lack of attention is understandable, given that we're approaching the end of an American presidential campaign, unlike any the country has seen, that's sucking most of the journalistic air out of newsrooms nationwide.

Plus, whatever is left over for Middle East coverage is going to Syria and Iraq.

One standout exception on Yemen has been the New York Times, but then its resources and range are matched by few, if any, other American news operations. The Times has even weighed in editorially, arguing that Washington should no longer aid the Saudis in this fight if Riyadh continues to excuse the excessive loss of Yemeni civilian life.

The editorial, which ran earlier this month, was headlined, "America's Moral Duty in Yemen."

As journalists, and religion journalists in particular, we need to ask the same question, and the sooner the better -- the presidential campaign notwithstanding.

Categories: Main

My response to the election, the news media and my alleged 'blanket defense of journalists'

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Nineteen days until the election, it's getting testy out there, huh?

(This aside is for my editor Terry Mattingly because I'm about to embed a bunch of tweets, and he worries in these cases that readers won't realize I'm eventually going to make a real point. So, yes, keep scrolling down, and I promise to say something by the end that will rock your world. Or not. But either way, I won't charge you.)

On Twitter, I follow a wide array of journalists, ministers and other folks highly active in the two worlds in which I spend so much time — news and religion.

On the one hand, my journalist friends are frustrated with critics lumping them all together as the evil news media. A few of those friends retweeted this tweet, which made me smile:

The Media is a thing. One place. It's a building. With a guy. The guy tells all the reporters of America what to do. And then they do it.

— Tracey Zeeck
Categories: Main

When is mortal sin not that big a deal? The National Post debates 'medically assisted death'

Thursday, October 20, 2016

News stories about issues in medical ethics -- take physician-assisted suicide, for example -- tend to be rather complicated affairs.

Add in ultimate questions about Catholic theology and things get even more complicated. Changing the name of the procedure in question to "medically assisted death" doesn't erase the moral and doctrinal questions involved in all of this.

Thus, editors at The National Post had to know they were headed into tricky territory when working on a recent story that ran with this headline: "Catholics hoping for a funeral after assisted death face different answers from different churches." Read the following carefully -- Catholic readers, especially -- and see if you can spot any problems that start right at the top of this story.

VANCOUVER -- A proper funeral is far more than an end-of-life celebration for practising Catholics, who believe last rites cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven.But for the faithful questioning whether those final sacraments are available to a loved one who has chosen a medically assisted death, the answer may depend on whom in the church they ask.

See the problem? Have the journalists who worked on this story confused Catholic teachings about funerals with teachings about what are commonly known as the "Last Rites," in which a priest -- whenever possible -- hears a dying person's final Confession and offers absolution? The crucial Catechism reference states:

In addition to the Anointing of the Sick, the Church offers those who are about to leave this life the Eucharist as viaticum. Communion in the body and blood of Christ, received at this moment of "passing over" to the Father, has a particular significance and importance. It is the seed of eternal life and the power of resurrection. ... The sacrament of Christ once dead and now risen, the Eucharist is here the sacrament of passing over from death to life, from this world to the Father.

A funeral service may be "final" rites for the deceased, but they are not the Last Rites, in the traditional sense. So, does the funeral service itself "cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven"?

That leads into another question that the National Post story mentions, but never discusses in any detail. What does the Catholic Catechism have to say about suicide and euthanasia? The story notes:

Catholic doctrine is unequivocal in its opposition to any form of suicide, but Canadian bishops have taken different positions on whether churchgoers who choose an assisted death should be absolutely barred from having an official funeral.

The actual Catechism reference states:

Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick, or dying persons. It is morally unacceptable.Thus an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering constitutes a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the living God, his Creator. The error of judgment into which one can fall in good faith does not change the nature of this murderous act, which must always be forbidden and excluded.

"Murder" is a crucial word. In other words, we are talking about a "mortal sin," as opposed to a "venial" sin. Dealing with a mortal sin requires repentance, confession and absolution -- as in a penitent going to Confession, now known as the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

At this point the story heads into -- you knew this was coming -- yet another discussion of whether Pope Francis has moved the church away from the letter of the law, when it comes to doctrines such as these, and into an age of "mercy" in which it isn't all that big a deal when people make choices to end their own lives, or the lives of loved ones.

You know, it's what whole, "Who am I to judge?" thing again.

Sure enough, the National Post team found that all kinds of Catholic experts -- including bishops, apparently -- believe all kinds of different things, when it comes to how to handle the "Francis effect" when dealing with this mortal sin.

So here is the big question: Do bishops allow priests to grant Catholic funerals to people who freely chosen to commit a mortal sin by asking doctors to do medical procedures that end their lives? How likely is it that these believers have chosen to confess this sin, and received absolution for it?

See if you can make sense out of this passage:

Rev. Marc Pelchat, vicar-general of the Archdiocese of Quebec, said the variation among bishops across Canada has less to do with church doctrine on assisted death and more to do with a difference in approach.Pelchat said bishops in Quebec encourage a more case-by-case treatment for physician-assisted deaths and are reluctant to establish a hard-and-fast rule that ignores individual circumstances. But the church ultimately opposes assisted death and prefers palliative care, he added.Douglas Farrow, a professor of Christian thought at McGill University in Montreal, said the difference in direction between bishops is no great surprise.“Some of them are more theologically astute than others and some of them are more faithful to the church’s teaching than others,” Farrow said.

Ah, so what we have here is a clash between Catholic leaders who are more "theologically astute" and those who are "more faithful to the church's teachings." Got that?

Follow this logic and one can only assume that the more a Catholic knows about theology, the more he or she will veer away from the actual theology and doctrines of the Catholic church. Did the reporter ask a follow-up question at that point?

So what is the big idea? If you connect the dots, a "theologically astute" Catholic could argue that granting a person who chose physician-assisted suicide the full rites of a Catholic funeral would "cleanse the soul of sin in preparation for eternal life in heaven," whether this Catholic confessed this final mortal sin or not.

Knowing that this is complicated territory, I emailed a frequent reader of this blog -- Catholic media pro Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz -- and asked for his take on this National Post story. As you would expect, he pointed to the Catechism, but also added this:

... While the NP author appears to have consulted a wide range of academics (I don't know any of them), it would have been good to consult a canon lawyer such as Ed Peters who wrote this about the whole (Canada) thing, especially when you had people claiming that Church law allows for a wide range of responses to those who deliberately kill themselves.

Finally, I would note that, once again, we have journalists dealing with questions about what Pope Francis would or would not say about an issue of sin, repentance, mercy and absolution without including a single reference to a crucial term in the life, writings and preaching of this pope -- Confession. Why does this keep happening?

Categories: Main

Seriously: Is the Bible so 'dangerous' it should be banned? What about burned?

Thursday, October 20, 2016


The Bible is the most-purchased and least-read book of any. What can we do to discourage the reading of this dangerous book? The medieval church kept it wisely in Latin. The damned Protestant Reformers wanted everyone to read it and look what evil that has accomplished!

Shall we burn it? Shall we prevent it being sold? I am serious.


The Religion Guy would have ignored this one except for the last three words above that require us to take this seriously. Norman’s prior postings to “Religion Q and A” indicate he’s quite knowledgeable about intellectuals’ attacks against biblical Jewish and Christian tradition. With a tiny faction such thinking turns to hatred or intolerance toward Scripture (at a time when devotion to Islam’s Quran expands in secularized western natiuons).

If Norman is “serious” the answer here is easy. No, “we” won’t be doing any such thing, even if “we” are not Bible fans, certainly in the U.S. given the Constitution’s freedoms of publishing and speech. (However, upholding, defining, and applying the freedom of religion guarantee is hotly contested.) The right to publish and read the Bible in common languages was a hard-fought freedom centuries ago. Access fostered widespread literacy and is normally regarded as a boon to civilization.

The theme is timely in this 200th anniversary year of the American Bible Society, which has distributed 6 billion copies, and next year’s 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Yes, both the Reformers and the society “wanted everyone to read it.”

Reverence or at least respect toward the Bible remains strong. A U.S. Gallup poll found 79 percent of adults see the Bible as sacred and 50 percent believe it has all the answers to life’s important questions. Yet many who are fond of the Bible ignore it, perhaps figuring the “Good Book” is just too difficult. On that see The Guy’s response to this prior question: “Why are holy scriptures so complicated?” The Guy said “Scriptures are as complicated as life itself.” Though the Bible invites lifelong study the big stuff is clear enough, and modern-day readers have excellent resources when puzzles arise. Click here for more information.

Norman doesn’t specify just what rouses contempt. But nowadays such feelings usually involve Scripture’s teachings on sexual morality (especially same-sex relationships) or the exact opposite, passages that offend modern moral sensitivities (e.g. corporal punishment, holy wars, or toleration of slavery in ancient times). “Religion Q and A” has treated several such questions and invites readers to post some more.

The status of Holy Writ is the theme of a new book by the Religion Guy’s friend, former New York Times religion writer and college teacher Kenneth A. Briggs: “The Invisible Bestseller: Searching for the Bible in America” (Eerdmans $25). His two years of legwork found a Dickensian best of times-worst of times. For many in these disunited United States the Bible is as cherished as ever. There’s a flourishing subculture of home Bible study groups, myriad young “Bible churches,” easy-to-digest translations for every taste on sale, and access via all electronic media.

And yet, Norman will cheer, Briggs portrays a “cultural distancing from the Bible,” which has “effectively dropped out of public life.” It is “everywhere and nowhere at the same time.” His weightiest chapter ponders academic “higher criticism,” whose modern thinking Briggs regards as generally unavoidable though it has divided Christians and undermined former unified belief about the Bible.

Briggs documents Norman’s statement that Scripture is more bought than read. Remarkably, 88 percent of U.S. homes have at least one copy, more than a third have two or three, and 22 percent own six or more. And let’s not forget those Gideons hotel-room Bibles. That’s vastly beyond the penetration of any other book in history.

However, 26 percent never actually read the Bible, and another 21 percent read it rarely (once or twice a year), compared with 15 percent who read it daily and another 13 percent saying “several times a week.” The Religion Guy figures with younger Americans, Bible reading slides simply because book-reading over-all declines, and the more depth a book contains the less likely it’s perused. Hey, Bob Dylan’s song lyrics just copped the Nobel Prize for Literature!

Bible ignorance is shown in head-scratching surveys.

Continue reading "Is the Bible so 'dangerous' it should be banned?", by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Devil's advocate: Religion News Service reports on Satanist pitch

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

The Satanic Temple has gotten lots of coverage from the Religion News Service, but its most recent story digs deeper into the group and its founder, Lucien Greaves. Which is not to say that the article doesn't have a laundry list of flaws. 

Most of the 1,600-word article is drawn from an interview with Greaves. Some of it is pasted from previous coverage. It makes some shaky claims about the causes of the Satanist movement. And it allows Greaves to attack Christianity again and again, without seeking out the other side.

This update does seem less servile than, say, the summertime feature in the Washington Post. It does more explaining, less campaigning. RNS seems to use a double peg. One is Greave's meeting with the Kansas City Atheist Coalition, seeking allies and kindred minds.  And Missouri is the home of the Child Evangelism Fellowship, which sponsors the Good News Clubs.

Hence the playful lede:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. (RNS) Lucien Greaves is the Good News Club’s worst nightmare.Greaves is co-founder of the Satanic Temple, a group dedicated to church-state separation. And his organization’s latest campaign in launching after-school clubs for children, Greaves told RNS before a recent talk in Kansas City, is not so much about indoctrinating children into Satanism — he doesn’t actually believe in the devil as a real being, much less one to be worshipped.Rather, the After School Satan clubs, as they are called, are about making a statement against the government providing facilities exclusively for Christian after-school programs such as the Good News Club.A side benefit is that the publicity surrounding the After School Satan clubs is likely to bring far more attention — and maybe public understanding — to the Satanic Temple than anything else the group could do.

So we have a good summary of Greaves' grievance: not so much a defense of his faith, but attacking activities of another faith. And we have the story's first flaw: calling The Satanic Temple the "worst nightmare" of the Good News Club. That may sound cheeky, but RNS doesn't interview anyone connected with Good News.

Getting such feedback shouldn't have been hard. The Temple's own YouTube channel posted a pro/con between Greaves and Moises Esteves of Good News, which aired on HLN's show The Daily Share. But the RNS article doesn't interview any evangelicals at all. It settles for a couple of quotes from Mat Staver, head of the religious rights group Liberty Counsel -- quotes that it copied from the Washington Post story.

Then what does the RNS article bring up, besides how bad Good News is?  

Well, it narrates Doug Mesner's upbringing in church, then his rebellion against it and his eventual self-reincarnation as Lucien Greaves.  And it relays his rationale for Satanism, a secular philosophy that sees Satan as a symbol and not a literal being.

It says the After School Satan clubs will teach lessons on science and reason, with a "focus on free inquiry and rationalism." It says he's seeking to set up the clubs from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles (although RNS reports that only one is actually running -- scheduled to start today in Portland, Ore.).

It also quotes two of the atheists in the audience at the Kansas City event. They voice appreciation for the common secular values, despite the "religion" part of Greaves' address.

But other problems intrude as RNS writes up the launch of The Satanic Temple:

Then, during his youth, Greaves grew outraged by the cultural phenomenon known as "the Satanic Panic" of the 1980s and 1990s.That wave of moral panic grew out of a widespread fear, especially among conservative believers, "that satanic forces were taking over the country," he said.Movies such as "The Exorcist" and "Rosemary’s Baby," as well as heavy metal music, were often blamed for fueling the Satanic Panic.

Visiting the Internet Movie Database would have helped here. It would have shown that Rosemary’s Baby came out in 1968, and The Exorcist came out in 1973 -- both of them long before the 1980s.

More direct causes for the "Satanic Panic" were self-avowed experts -- especially Mike Warnke, who said he was once a Satanist high priest; and Lauren Stratford, who claimed to have served as a "breeder" for babies, for Satanists to sacrifice. Neither name appears in the RNS article; Greaves probably didn’t mention them.

The problem is not just what this article says, but what it does not say. For one, it has nothing on the Church of Satan, founded by the late Anton LaVey 50 years ago, long before The Satanic Temple. The CoS's fundamental beliefs heavily overlap those Greaves spelled out to RNS: atheistic, rationalistic, individualistic. And three years ago, Greaves told Vice magazine that he considered LaVey's work an "excellent jumping-off point," but short of the activism he favors.

Other problems:

* RNS acknowledges that "atheists aren’t necessarily keen on the idea of something that seems to promote any religion -- be it satanic or Christian." But no one says that in the story -- an instance of the "People Say" method, putting words in the mouths of unnamed sources.

* The Satanic Temple is said to have around 50,000 members, but RNS doesn't find out the size of Good News Clubs. In that HLN video, Moises Esteves puts it at 178,000 children.

* RNS asks why Greaves chose Satan as a symbol, then doesn't get an answer. He merely says he "expects to be misunderstood," then adds: "If people can see that Satanists aren’t immoral or criminal or cruel, we have forced them to judge others based on real-world actions rather than maintain some obscure out-group standard by which unjustified purges have always taken place." So he just attacks. Again.

This story, as I've said, goes deeper into Satanist beliefs than many other news accounts. But as one of the main remaining pools of specialists on religion news, RNS needs to do better. After all, you-know-who is in the details.

Photo: After School Satan logo, from the Satanic Temple's Facebook page.


Categories: Main

Lack of compassion or something else? Why Canada's Catholic hospitals won't help patients die

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

We live in interesting times, eh.

In a story in The Globe and Mail, a Toronto-based Canadian national newspaper, a physician upset that a Catholic hospital won't participate in assisted suicide (although that term isn't used) gets heroic coverage.

The lede:

A Vancouver Island doctor is resigning from the ethics committee at a local Catholic hospital because it refuses to offer assisted dying on site, a stand that he says is unnecessarily causing critically ill patients more suffering as they are transferred to facilities dozens of kilometres away.Jonathan Reggler, a general physician who makes daily patient visits to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox, said he knew the facility, like other faith-based hospitals across the country, had developed a “strict” policy of transferring patients asking for assisted deaths.But it wasn’t until recently, he says, that such patients began streaming into St. Joseph’s – and transferring out – after a federal law came into force June 17 that legalized medically assisted dying for patients whose suffering is intolerable and whose deaths are reasonably foreseeable.“We’re talking about very sick patients having to be transferred – people who are close to death – and it’s wrong,” Dr. Reggler said.

Later, the newspaper introduces the question of Catholic hospitals' continued funding:

Daphne Gilbert, a law professor at the University of Ottawa, said governments must soon take a stand on whether they will continue funding faith-based hospitals that deny patients a service that the Supreme Court of Canada has defined as their constitutional right.“The Catholic hospitals have put themselves in a tricky position,” she said.

I'm no expert on Canadian politics, medical care or church-state practices. I've traveled to a number of provinces all over Canada to report various stories, including one earlier this year on Syrian refugees in the Toronto area. But there's so much I don't know or understand about America's neighbor to the north.

Still, I think it's legitimate to expect — whether we're talking about a U.S. or Canadian newspaper — that the story might explain why the Catholic hospitals are refusing to help patients die.

Yes, The Globe and Mail includes a statement from the hospital's top administrator:

Jane Murphy, president and chief executive of the hospital, released a statement Tuesday praising Dr. Reggler as a respected and long-standing member of the committee, but she said her institution will continue to refuse to offer assisted dying.“The B.C. health sector’s response to [assisted dying] allows for individuals and faith-based hospitals to conscientiously object to the provision of [an assisted death], while providing safe and timely transfers for patients for further assessment and discussion of care options, if required,” her e-mailed statement said. “B.C. has effective processes for transferring patients to other hospitals for numerous medical needs, and minimizing patient discomfort and pain is always the highest priority.“We will respond to any patient who may request [an assisted death] with respect, support, compassion and kindness and will do so without discrimination or coercion.”

But why does the hospital "conscientiously object" to the practice?

Is it a lack of compassion of suffering patients or something else? Perhaps something related to religious beliefs on the sanctity of life? Wouldn't such context be helpful to readers' understanding of the issues at play?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Yes, Jerry Falwell, Jr., spiked an anti-Trump column (Dang it, publishers do things like that)

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Several times a year, either to students at journalism conferences or in a classroom at The King's College in New York City, I deliver a lecture that I call "Up Against the Wall: Getting along with administrators at private colleges."

The big idea of this talk is that private schools are difficult, but not impossible, places in which to do traditional journalism -- because in a private school the administration is both the publisher of the newspaper and the "local government" that student journalists need to cover.

The goal, I stress, is to do as much journalism as possible, with an emphasis on hard-news reporting. Thus, one of my guidelines -- while serving as newspaper advisor at two Christian private schools -- was to address campus controversies with real reporting, as opposed to taking the easy way out and writing splashy opinion columns.

This brings us, of course, to news reports about Liberty University President Jerry Falwell, Jr., yanking an opinion column critical of Donald Trump out of the Liberty Champion. Here is the top of The Politico report on this development:

The president of Liberty University censored an article critical of Donald Trump, according to the sports editor of the school's official newspaper, the Liberty Champion.The editor, Joel Schmieg, posted a statement on his Facebook account claiming it was Jerry Falwell Jr., the university's president and a Trump supporter, who spiked the column, which criticized Trump for lewd comments he made on a hot mic during a 2005 taping of "Access Hollywood.""Yesterday I was told [Falwell] was not allowing me to express my personal opinion in an article I wrote for my weekly column in the Liberty Champion about Trump and his 'locker room talk,' " Schmieg wrote."I understand Joel's frustration regarding the situation," Cierra Carter, the opinion editor for the Liberty Champion, told POLITICO. "Our president has been very vocal with his opinions during this election season and we'd like that same privilege."

This is an interesting use of the word "censor," in light of the fact that Falwell is legally the publisher of the newspaper that is owned and operated by the university (as is the norm in private schools on left and right). This would be like saying that the owner of The New York Times, or the publisher of the newspaper, "censored" an article by a conservative member of the staff criticizing the newspaper's editorial management for endorsing Hillary Clinton.

Now, was it (a) legal or (b) wise for Falwell to take this action? These are the questions that reporters need to be asking as they report this story today, if additional news organizations elect to do so. As for Falwell, he had this to say:

@Sandi simple, if I see redundant columns, I cut one. Why repeat the same thoughts twice at school expense? Good night.

— J L Falwell (@JerryFalwellJr) October 19, 2016

Sounds like a publisher, right?

As for the legal question, the team at the Inside Higher Ed website found an appropriate source to feature in its report, with Frank D. LoMonte of the the Student Press Law Center noting via email:

"Of course, Liberty is a private university not subject to First Amendment constraints, but the best private universities voluntarily maintain a hands-off policy respectful of the integrity of independent journalism. Leaving aside the civic and educational benefits of fostering critical-thinking skills on a college campus, it's just self-defeating in the year 2016 to think you can suppress unwanted ideas by tearing articles out of paper newspapers. When you censor an article in the 21st century, you're just guaranteeing it a wider audience. I doubt many 20-year-old sports columnists are being read across the country, but by censoring Joel's column, the university has exponentially increased its impact. There's nothing more irresistible than journalism powerful authority figures don't want you to read."

This is accurate, of course. Inside Higher Ed and The Daily Beast both published the Schmieg column and I expect other websites, especially on the cultural left, to do so. This is often the case when students at conservative educational institutions publish these kinds of editorials or even news reports. (GetReligion readers may recall that, back in my student days at Baylor University, I was caught up in one of these cases that made national headlines.)

As a journalism professor, I cannot help but wonder what would have happened if Liberty student journalists had actually attempted to report a legitimate news story on the same topic, going out of their way to interview campus voices on both sides of the Falwell-Trump story.

Would Liberty administrators have agreed to be interviewed for such a story? Would that have been spiked? Also, what would have happened if student editors had chosen to print the offending column in a debate format, with another student journalist arguing the opposite point of view? Would Falwell have allowed that? After all:

In his Facebook post, Schmieg poked fun at a statement by Falwell earlier in the week, in which he said: "It is a testament to the fact that Liberty University promotes the free expression of ideas unlike many major universities where political correctness prevents conservative students from speaking out."

Falwell is raising a valid point, although it's clearly in his self interest to do so. Fair-minded people may wonder if the mainstream press would be as up in arms about a conservative columnist having his or her work spiked from the newspaper on a liberal private school campus (or, more likely, the school's alternative conservative newspaper being yanked or trashed).

Would leaders at liberal private schools shut down student journalists attempting to report and write articles critical of actions by the administration or digging into matters linked to the unholy trinity of private-school life, as in student (and faculty) discipline cases, school finances and the affairs of donors?

Let me end with a highly symbolic flashback to an interesting moment in my own teaching career. Long ago, I interviewed for a position teaching journalism (and advising the campus newspaper) at what I will call a liberal campus linked to a conservative religious tradition.

During that process a top administrator asked what I would do if a student tried to write a column critical of Roe v. Wade and abortion rights. I said, (a) I would prefer to see students deal with controversial issues of that kind in actual news reporting, featuring the views of students, faculty and administrators on both sides and (b) if the newspaper was going to run a personal column on that topic, I would request that it be featured as part of a dialogue, paired with a column taking the opposite point of view.

The administrator was not amused. He took a long drag on his cigarette and said, concerning the airing of viewpoints opposed to abortion, that he could not see the administration allowing something like that to happen in the student newspaper. After all, that would clash with the school's stance defending abortion rights (he said, "a woman's right to choose") and it would create too much controversy on campus.

Needless to say, I didn't get that job. However, something better happened, but that's another story.

As the old journalism saying goes: It's hard to cover a war when a general is signing your paycheck. You see, all private schools -- left and right -- have sacred cows that affect student journalists.

I have noticed that this is true in a few elite mainstream newsrooms, as well.

Categories: Main

Yes, journalism is a noble profession — so let's not bash everyone in the news media

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

I read a Facebook post today that I decided I had to copy and paste.

So here it is: 

I do not give Facebook or any entities associated with Facebook permission to use my pictures, information or posts, both past and future. Blah, blah, blah.

Whoops! Wrong post. That hoax has been disproven about a zillion times. Folks, please (please!!!) remember that is your friend when it comes to this kind of crazy claim.

But seriously ...

My friend Cheryl Bacon — chairwoman of the Department of Journalism and Mass Communication at Abilene Christian University in Texas — had a timely Facebook post today on journalism and the 2016 presidential election. She gave me permission to share it here:

Rant alert:After months of Facebook posts about the two candidates and their many documented foibles, it seems this week that the entire Facebook world has grown weary of candidate besmirching and turned on the media. So, ponder this:1. Yes, we have bias in media. But learn to recognize the difference between news content and commentary. Both are important and legitimate, but they are different. It makes no sense to rant about "the news media bias" based on what some commentators on Fox or CNN said. That's what they're supposed to do: offer commentary.Read the stories on the front page of the newspaper. Listen to the stories in the actual newscast. When you read on the web, look to see if it's a column or opinion piece. Pay attention for crying out loud.2. Don't stop watching, listening and especially reading. Read widely and from real news sources. If you are spending your time on websites where every "story" is dedicated to telling "the real story" about the opposing candidate and all of those "real stories" are negative, chances are this is not a news site. It's interest group commentary, which tends to be ill informed and extremely biased. There are lots of these on the right and left. They're mostly useless.3. Stop blasting all reporters and journalists as evil and the scourge of our democracy. They are not. And suggesting that they are is as biased and illogical as suggesting that all cops are corrupt or all immigrants are criminals or all Christians are crazy. Not true.Journalists are so much more like you than you imagine. They are college-educated men and women who chose reporting, writing and visual storytelling as a career. They have families to support, mortgages to pay, Little League teams to coach, school loans, car payments, family reunions to attend. These are the people who tell you about hurricanes and fires and kidnappings. They warned us about Ebola and Zika and shingles and e coli. They investigated the banking crisis and were the first to raise a flag of caution about financial corruption that led to the housing crisis. They give you the scores on Friday night and Sunday afternoon. They cover art shows and concerts and city council meetings and funerals.And sometimes they report stories people don't like. But they are doing important work that is at the core of how this country works. Sometimes they get it wrong. And sometimes their listeners and readers aren't paying attention. Pay attention. These are the sorts of people I've spent my life educating, editing and critiquing. No one has criticized them more than I have and few will defend them with more fervor.Hate their editorial stance if you disagree with it. Challenge their commentary when it's wrong. But thank them when you meet them for doing something very important, for working long hours, often for lousy pay, because they really believe it's important to tell true stories well. And I believe that's a noble profession.

Amen, my friend!

Now, to casual observers, it might seem strange to hear a GetReligionista defend journalists. We, after all, are not shy about criticizing reporting that is inaccurate, unfair or incomplete. As much traditional journalism gives way to advocacy reporting, we often find ourselves frustrated with stories that blend elements of news and commentary and make it difficult for ordinary readers to ascertain which is which.

But as practicing journalists ourselves, we offer our criticisms (and praises) as those who love journalism and see it — as Dr. Bacon does — as a noble profession. Kudos to her for her highly appropriate, well-timed words of wisdom.

Update: Read my follow-up post:

With so many on edge with the election 19 days away, some advice: #Flowers #Dogs #Heartland

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) October 20, 2016
Categories: Main

This just in! New York Times probes old, old, old divisions among American evangelicals

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

If I remember correctly, I wrote my first major feature story on growing divisions among American evangelicals in about 1986, while at The Rocky Mountain News (RIP). It focused on the work of Evangelicals for Social Action, a group that was relevant in Denver because of the work of the late (great) Denver Seminary leader Vernon Grounds (my next-door-neighbor, in terms of office space, while I taught there in the early '90s).

The group's most famous leader is Ron Sider, author of the highly influential book "Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger" -- first released in (note the year) 1978.

The basic idea in the Rocky feature was that there was a growing number of evangelicals who simply did not fit under the already aging Religious Right label. In fact, many -- like Grounds and Sider -- never were part of that movement in the first place.

Folks in this "JustLife" crowd (with a few exceptions) were orthodox on essential doctrinal and moral issues, especially abortion and the defense of traditional marriage, but they were fiercely committed to economic justice, racial equality and peacemaking. They were already struggling to find political candidates -- Democrats or Republicans -- they could support in national campaigns. There were quiet arguments about whether it was right to support third-party candidates or to boycott some elections.

Does any of this sound familiar?

You got it! This is now breaking news in The New York Times, months after that wall-to-wall national media "Evangelicals Love Trump!" thing that helped create momentum for the Donald Trump brand in the GOP primaries. The headline at the Gray Lady proclaims: "Donald Trump Reveals Evangelical Rifts That Could Shape Politics for Years."

Let me stress that this is a good Times story, even if it is very, very, very old news. The basic idea could be summed up like this: All of the old-guard religious conservatives whose names our Amtrak Acela corridor editors recognize are still backing Trump, but there seem to be these other Christian conservatives of various brands who (a) never supported him in the first place or (b) have decided to be more vocal about their opposition to the Donald at this moment in time.

Thus, the Times has spotted a trend. Here is the overture:

When Jen Hatmaker speaks to stadiums full of Christian women, she regales them with stories about her five children and her garden back in Austin, Tex. -- and stays away from politics. But recently she took to Facebook and Instagram to blast Donald J. Trump as a “national disgrace,”and remind her legions of followers that there are other names on the ballot in November. ...In the nearly four decades since Jerry Falwell Sr. founded a group called the Moral Majority, evangelical Christians have been the Republican Party’s most unified and reliable voting bloc in November presidential elections. The leaders of what came to be known as the religious right were kingmakers and household names, like Pat Robertson, James C. Dobson, Ralph Reed.But this year, Ms. Hatmaker’s outraged post was one small sign of the splintering of the evangelical bloc and a possible portent of the changes ahead. While most of the religious right’s aging old guard has chosen to stand by Mr. Trump, its judgment and authority are being challenged by an increasingly assertive crop of younger leaders, minorities and women such as Ms. Hatmaker.

So what is the news here? Yes, all of the old evangelical divisions that started showing up a third of a century ago, or earlier, are still there. The crucial Times issue now is -- sit down, because this will be a shocker -- whether young evangelicals will compromise on issues linked to 2,000 years of Christian doctrine about sexuality.

Bet you never saw that one coming, right?

Again let me stress that this Times piece includes quite a few important names from these debates. This piece is a step forward, when it comes to rounding up some important facts and viewpoints about the whole warped "Evangelicals Love Trump!" media fiasco. For example, note the fact that the conservative World magazine (an early source of #NeverTrump facts and trends) and the "moderate" Christianity Today have openly rejected Trump.

But what is the Times thesis? Let us attend (and note the lack of attribution clauses):

The big names who sit atop organizations that function largely as lobbying groups and mobilization squads for the Republican Party have stuck with Mr. Trump despite the lewd comments he made in a 2005 recording, even though he was never their preferred candidate. He wooed them and convinced them that he would appoint Supreme Court justices in the mold of Antonin Scalia, the conservative who died in February. To these pragmatic players, the election boiled down to only two issues, both that could be solved with Supreme Court appointments: stopping abortion and ensuring legal protections for religious conservatives who object to same-sex marriage.But the evangelicals now challenging the old guard tend to have a broader agenda. They see it as a Christian imperative to care for immigrants and refugees, the poor, the environment and victims of sex trafficking and sexual abuse. Many support criminal justice reform and the aims of the Black Lives Matter movement. While ardently opposed to abortion, some are inclined to be more accepting of same-sex marriage.

Guess what! Most of the progressive #NeverTrump evangelicals I know and read -- the folks with the wider cultural agenda -- are just as worried as ever about stopping abortion and defending the First Amendment, as in free speech, freedom of association and the free exercise of religion. There are even doctrinal conservatives who don't oppose same-sex unions as political and social policy, yet who are equally concerned about defending the rights of religious believers to dissent and follow the doctrines of their faith.

Many are worried about Clinton's impact on America. However, they are even more worried about Trump's impact on the world.

At this point, let's flash back seven months. It will really help -- especially for journalists -- to take the time to watch the Phil "Bob the Tomato" Vischer podcast at the top of this post. Vischer is a very funny, yet serious, man and he is very plugged into the evangelical Christian media subculture that he, ultimately, as transcended.

Listen to all of the nuances that are in this podcast -- from seven months ago -- that are not in the new Times piece. I realize that Times people cannot know everyone and they do not have room to cover all of these points of view. That would be like, oh, asking World to cover a dispute of come kind among Brooklyn hipster spiritualists, academic secularists, liberal Catholics, Upper West Side ecumenical Protestant elites and liberal Jews. There are worlds within our worlds.

Still, it's good that the Times is tuning into the evangelical splits and debates, finally, after several decades. Honest. Please hear me say that.

But there are now larger issues in play that GetReligion has been talking about since Day 1. The basic question remains: What does the word "evangelical" mean? What is the core set of doctrinal (not political) convictions that evangelicals unite to defend?

Yes, it has come to this. It is time for journalists to ask the following doctrinal questions -- the old tmatt trio questions -- among "evangelical" leaders. The questions (as worded in a discussion with the late George Gallup, Jr.):

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?* Is salvation found through Jesus, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me."* Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Once upon a time, the evangelical answers would have been rather predictable. But now?

Trust me, there are stories lurking between the lines of this Times report.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Genetics, ethics, race and playing God: StatNews profiles an intriguing researcher

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Every so often, an article appears that is written with such grace and taste from an unexpected source. I’d never heard of, a year-old web site covering medicine, health care and life sciences started by John Henry, the billionaire owner of The Boston Globe.

Recently, it produced a piece about a Harvard genetics professor, who seems to be an agnostic, reaching out to the religious community to explain the latest research about the human genome. It could only have been done by someone who knows the genetics field but who could also grasp the theological objections by people not so familiar with it.

We are talking about big, big questions here.

RANDALLSTOWN, Md. -- Is the human genome sacred? Does editing it violate the idea that we’re made in God’s image or, perhaps worse, allow us to “play God”?It’s hard to imagine weightier questions. And so to address them, Ting Wu is starting small.Last month, the geneticist was here in a conference room outside Baltimore, its pale green walls lined with mirrors, asking pastors from area black churches to consider helping her.Wu’s research focuses on the nitty-gritty of the genome; her lab at Harvard Medical School studies the positioning and behavior of chromosomes. But she’s also interested in improving the public’s understanding of genetics. She has gone to classrooms and briefed congressional aides. She has advised the team behind “Grey’s Anatomy.”At a time of unprecedented access to genetic tests and plummeting costs for genetic sequencing, Wu believes people should know what scientific advances mean for them. The challenge is empowering communities that are skeptical of science because they have been underserved or even mistreated in the past.

The writer cuts to the chase, explaining that the issue is genome editing.

Wu’s outreach to faith groups comes as advances in genetics are forcing scientists to grapple with the power of their newly discovered technology. The issue driving much of the ethical debate these days is genome-editing, which has become much simpler and more efficient with a tool called CRISPR.Religious leaders and bioethicists have debated genome editing for decades, but it’s largely been a theoretical consideration. CRISPR makes once-theoretical notions -- say, editing the genomes of embryos -- a very real possibility. (Those changes are called “germline” edits and would be passed on to future generations.) It’s a revolution that’s being driven by scientists like Wu’s husband, famed geneticist and her Harvard Medical School colleague George Church.

The writer quoted a decent cross section of institutions and people who know genetics and theology for an audience I’m guessing hears very little about religion, much less religious peoples’ doubts about where science could be leading people.

My only complaint is the article is too short! I wish there could have been more of a profile on this scientist similar to the one done on Feng Zhang a year ago on the same site. What makes Wu tick? I never felt I got a glimpse into her as a person. What led her to start an organization that tries to educate people on genetics?

I also wondered if it had been assembled too quickly. For instance, why quote Francis Collins from a Buzzfeed piece? Certainly Collins is reachable by phone for a more original quote. I would have liked some quotes from evangelical Protestants on this issue as well as Roman Catholics. As I re-read the piece, it seemed clear that the writer had attended a conference at which Wu spoke and assembled his piece mainly from what he picked up there plus a few phone calls.

 I hope to see more in StatNews about the faith community and genetics. There’s been some other good efforts on this front, such as this lengthy offering from the Deseret News, so there’s plenty more room for decent reporting on designer babies, embryo creation and destruction. There are more and more opportunities out there for religion writers to write on the challenging ethical frontiers in science. I'm hoping that science writers can also take the time to school themselves in religion. 

Categories: Main

Nigerian girls are released, news media say -- but most reports keep their religion hidden

Monday, October 17, 2016

Twenty-one of those kidnap victims in Nigeria have been returned to their parents -- a victory for that nation's government and for the alertness of mainstream media in this 30-month-long story.

What is not so alert is the recurring blindness of most media to the religious dimension of the conflict: the abduction of 276 schoolgirls, most of them Christian, by the jihadist gang known as Boko Haram.

We GetReligionistas have been giving very mixed reviews on the coverage. We've praised mainstream media for keeping an eye on the story, while criticizing the way they seem to dismiss the religious beliefs of captives and captors alike.

One (kind of) bright spot shines at the BBC, in its story on the 21 newly freed girls. The narrative conveys almost Passover-like imagery of deliverance from slavery:

One of the girls freed said during a Christian ceremony in Abuja: "I was... [in] the woods when the plane dropped a bomb near me but I wasn't hurt."We had no food for one month and 10 days but we did not die. We thank God," she added, speaking in the local Hausa language.Many of the kidnapped students were Christian but had been forcibly converted to Islam during captivity.Another girl said: "We never imagined that we would see this day but, with the help of God, we were able to come out of enslavement."One parent said: "We thank God. I never thought I was going to see my daughter again but here she is... Those who are still out there - may God bring them back to be reunited with their parents."

Strong clues indeed about the faith of the girls and their families. The story would have been stronger still if the BBC had detailed the occasion for the reporting. The article says only that it was during a "Christian ceremony" in Abuja, the national capital. Wish they'd said what kind of ceremony, and who performed it. (It was a church service, as you'll see in a bit.)

Even better would have been for BBC to note that Chibok, the families' hometown, is in northeastern Nigeria -- a heavily Muslim region and the main war zone for the fight against Boko Haram.

BBC actually came late to the story. The Associated Press rushed out an update back on Thursday, when the release took place. But that piece strips nearly all religious content from the story. It mainly includes details of the release, saying how many of the girls "appeared malnourished, their clothes hanging loosely over their bony frames."

A point to AP, at least, for reminding us of the international outcry against the mass kidnapping and the campaign to publicize the girls' plight:

"We are extremely delighted and grateful," said the Bring Back Our Girls movement, which campaigned in Nigeria and internationally for the release of the girls, most of whom were teenagers when they were seized in April 2014 from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok."We thank the federal government and, like Oliver Twist, we ask for more," said Hauwa Biu, an activist in Maiduguri, the capital of northeastern Borno state and the birthplace of Boko Haram.

Ironic, isn’t it? This 1,000-word article, with three writers, manages to work in a reference to Oliver Twist, but it can't name the religion of the captive girls.

Still, the piece is miles ahead of the Washington Post, although that newspaper's report just came out this afternoon. The Post details the release and reunion. It strings together photos and videos on the story. And it adds a bit on prospects for finding the other 197 captives still believed to be alive. Nothing on the religious angle, except to mention that the reunion took place during a church service.

The Post's main contribution is explaining why so many follow-up stories are appearing today: "The girls were released Thursday and flown to Abuja, the capital, but it has taken days for the parents to arrive from Chibok."

None of these articles expose the nature of Boko Haram as a backward extremist Islamist group. AP barely hints at it, saying that its strongman, Abubakar Shekau, was deposed by the Islamic State group. It also translates "Boko Haram" as "Western education is forbidden," although our tmatt has said the term actually means "Books Are Forbidden." Where did he get that translation? From a BBC backgrounder -- which is neither mentioned nor linked in the BBC's current article.

CNN, too, aired an early report on the girls' release -- again, with only the barest suggestion of the religious extremism behind their original abduction. It says Boko Haram is an "Islamist militant group," then adds: "The terror group, which pledged allegiance to ISIS in March 2015, aims to impose a stricter enforcement of Sharia law across Africa's most populous nation, which has a Christian-majority south and a Muslim-majority north."

The religion of the girls themselves? You'd never know from that report.

That's a pity because, as CNN itself points out, the network has tracked the story since it broke. A CNN reporter took a crew to Chibok just after the kidnap in April 2014 and talked to the women there.

But CNN's longterm coverage has always shown some holes. On the one-year anniversary of the abduction, it said that some of the girls, "it is feared, may have been raped, brutalized, enslaved and forced to convert to Islam." Converted from what? Doesn't say.

All the above is, of course, the reason for specialized media like CBN. Founder Pat Robertson may be long past his prime, but the news outfit he founded produced its own report on the release of the Chibok girls. It also bluntly called Boko Haram an "Islamic extremist group."

But I want to leave a bottom line of praise for mainstream media in staying with this story -- especially with other major stories, like the launch of China's newest manned space launch and the long-awaited battle to retake Mosul from ISIS. And with 197 of the Chibok girls still unaccounted for, the media will have lots of opportunities for more follow-up.

Thumb: Screenshot from a Reuters video, via


Categories: Main

'Kum Ba Yah': AP serves up a vanilla puff piece on Hillary Clinton's 'private' faith

Monday, October 17, 2016

We've seen some rather shallow coverage of Hillary's Clinton faith this election cycle.

Here, here and here, for example.

Over the weekend, The Associated Press served up another such piece with this cheesy headline:

For Clinton, a daily dose of faith along with politic

AP's lede takes us straight into Clinton's private inbox (no, not that one):

At about 5 a.m. each day — maybe a little later on weekends — an email from the Rev. Bill Shillady arrives in Hillary Clinton's inbox.The contents? A reading from Scripture. A devotional commentary. And a prayer. They're sometimes inspired by the headlines — focusing recently, for example, on the role of women in the Bible."I know she reads them, because she responds to me," says Shillady, executive director of the United Methodist City Society in New York. "We've had some interesting emails back and forth about some of the concepts."It's no secret that Clinton is a lifelong Methodist. But Shillady — who officiated at Chelsea Clinton's wedding, led a memorial service for Clinton's mother, Dorothy Rodham, and gave the closing benediction at the Democratic National Convention — feels that many people don't really know how much her faith "is a daily thing."

Keep reading, and AP explains — with seemingly no need for actual sources — why Clinton keeps her faith so "private":

One reason Clinton might not speak more about her faith is that her commitment to it has been challenged over the years by political foes for various reasons. That's perhaps not surprising, given her decades as a polarizing political figure.Donald Trump also has questioned her faith, with this claim in June: "We don't know anything about Hillary in terms of religion." Perplexed Clinton supporters noted plenty has been said and written, by Clinton and others, about her faith.



Not exactly the kind of terms one usually associates with hard-hitting news reporting about a person running for the nation's top political office. In the old days, AP believed in attributing facts to named sources. In this piece, the wire service seems content to rely on the writer's personal opinion.

How does Clinton's "private" faith inform her public politics and policy positions — say, on the issue of abortion, given that the AP story appeared on the same weekend as the 100th anniversary of Planned Parenthood? AP doesn't bother to delve into such questions.

What do Clinton's political opponents and critics say about her faith? Do they see her religion as any kind of factor or issue in how people will or should vote on Nov. 8? Again, AP sees no need to engage such sources.

What we have here, folks, is a big bowl of vanilla ice cream — a puff piece that reads more like a reporter's fan letter than an attempt at serious journalism.

Categories: Main
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