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Regarding that maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions: What Poynter said

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Nine out of 10 Americans turn to GetReligion for clear, compelling analysis of religion news coverage. 

Trust me on that: I've done a survey.

"Wait a minute," somebody in Cyberland protests. "Can I please see details on the polling process and the specific questions asked?"

What, you don't believe me!? Would it help if I produced an official-looking news release?

I am joking, of course.

But my point is serious, given recent headlines concerning a maligned study on same-sex marriage opinions that drew a ton of media coverage:

A Columbia Univ disavows his highly publicized co-authored study on public opinion and same-sex marriage

— Sarah Pulliam Bailey (@spulliam) May 20, 2015

.@wsj joins @nytimes, @washingtonpost and others in adding editor's notes to stories based on fraudulent research:

— Poynter (@Poynter) May 20, 2015

The news sparked a front-page story in Tuesday's New York Times:

A study found that gay canvassers could sway voters' opinion on same-sex marriage. Then, the findings collapsed

— The New York Times (@nytimes) May 26, 2015

The Times reported:

He was a graduate student who seemingly had it all: drive, a big idea and the financial backing to pay for a sprawling study to test it.In 2012, as same-sex marriage advocates were working to build support in California, Michael LaCour, a political science researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, asked a critical question: Can canvassers with a personal stake in an issue — in this case, gay men and women — actually sway voters’ opinions in a lasting way?He would need an influential partner to help frame, interpret and place into context his findings — to produce an authoritative scientific answer. And he went to one of the giants in the field, Donald P. Green, a Columbia University professor and co-author of a widely used text on field experiments.Last week, their finding that gay canvassers were in fact powerfully persuasive with people who had voted against same-sex marriage — published in December in Science, one of the world’s leading scientific journals — collapsed amid accusations that Mr. LaCour had misrepresented his study methods and lacked the evidence to back up his findings.

So what is the journalistic lesson here? Glad you asked. 

Enter James Warren, chief media correspondent for the Poynter Institute, one of journalism's leading think tanks:

The maligned gay marriage study caused many retractions. Here’s how journalists can avoid that:

— Poynter (@Poynter) May 26, 2015

Warren writes:

A now notorious study on same-sex marriage underscores a frequent newsroom reality: Political polling or a piece of academic research arrives and is by and large blindly passed along to readers, viewers and listeners.If it’s seemingly headline grabbing, like the derided study on whether gay canvassers could change voters’ views in fundamental ways, the “news” value rises.And in an era in which social media and competition make speed the frequent priority, there can be more of a chance that bad research is transmitted without much double-checking of methodology. Most newsrooms simply aren’t equipped to scrupulously double-check, and often not inclined if the origin of the research seems to be a reputable organization or individual.“It’s a huge concern,” Bill Marimow, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and a Pulitzer-Prize winning investigative reporter, told me. “It is fraught with peril to look at study and go on the air or on the Web.”

Want more insight? Head on over to and check out Warren's full piece. It's definitely worth your time.

After you're finished reading, come back here or tweet us at @GetReligion and answer this question: Do you see any religion ghosts in the coverage of the original study or the follow-up headlines?

Might journalists have responded more skeptically, say, to a survey purporting to show short discussions by Christian conservatives easily win over converts to the traditional marriage side? 

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Happy couple has 100 grandkids: Can you (as opposed to AP) spot the religion ghost?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

This has to be one of the #DUH items to ever grace the cyber pages here at GetReligion. Let's see if you can spot the religion ghost in this one.

So let's say that you are reading a story about a nice elderly couple in Illinois named Leo and Ruth Zanger. The story appeared in the Quincy Herald-Whig that was picked up by the Associated Press, which is why several people (Hello M.Z. Hemingway!) saw it and sent me stunned, even incredulous notes.

Now, the key to this story is that Leo and Ruth Zanger recently celebrated the birth of their 100th grandchild. Thus, here is the top of the story:

It's a big deal when Leo and Ruth Zanger's family gets together. Seriously, it's a really big deal -- with added emphasis on the "big" part.The Zangers recently welcomed their 100th grandchild, which makes family functions more than a get-together."We rent out a church hall," said Austin Zanger, a grandson of Leo and Ruth.When Austin's wife, Ashleigh, gave birth to their second child, Jaxton Leo, on April 8, it became a historic moment. Jaxton was grandchild No. 100 for Leo and Ruth. For the numerically inclined, Jaxton was also No. 46 among the great-grandchildren. The Zangers also have 53 grandkids and one great-great-grandchild for a nice round 100."The good Lord has just kept sending them," Leo Zanger said of the grandkids. "We could start our own town."

Ah, but what kind of church hall? Seriously, as you read the top of this story didn't the following thought drift through your mind: "The Zangers must be really serious Catholics."

Well, that apparently never occurred to the journalists who produced this story, because -- #DUH -- the word "Catholic" never appears in this story in any of the versions that I have found, so far, in the online news world.

However, with a few clicks of a mouse I was able to use a search engine and find (.pdf here) that -- surprise, surprise -- the Zangers appear to be beloved members of the St. Rose of Lima Parish in Quincy, Ill., which is "A Personal Parish for the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite or Traditional Latin Mass" that is led by the "Priests of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter." The church bulletin recently gushed:

Congratulations to Leo & Ruth Zanger for their 100th great grandkid, to Daniel & Kelly Zanger for their 2nd grandchild and Austin & Ashleigh Zanger for their newly born Jaxton. Welcome to our new parishioner Jaxton Leo who was baptized at St. Rose on Friday April 24! 

Seriously now, why in the world would journalists do a rather long feature on this couple and their large army of grandkids without mentioning the Catholic faith that appears to be linked to the abundance of life in their families?

Reading this story, I was again reminded of a quote I have used several times here at GetReligion, drawn from a Weekly Standard essay that ran with the headline "America's One-Child Policy."

... (In) a world where childbearing has no practical benefit, people have babies because they want to, either for self-fulfillment or as a moral imperative. "Moral imperative," of course, is a euphemism for "religious compulsion." There are stark differences in fertility between secular and religious people.The best indicator of actual fertility is "aspirational fertility" -- the number of children men and women say they would like to have. Gallup has been asking Americans about their "ideal family size" since 1936. When they first asked the question, 64 percent of Americans said that three or more children were ideal; 34 percent said that zero, one, or two children were ideal. Today only 34 percent of Americans think that a family with three-or-more children is ideal.

In other words, people who have lots of children are, more often than not, choosing to do so because of the religious faith that defines and guides their lives. In other words, this is part of the basic DNA, the facts, of the Zanger story. Why omit it?

Wait! Maybe this story was just being really subtle, like this reference in the middle of the text:

Donna Lane, another of Leo and Ruth's daughters, is the unofficial family historian who keeps immaculate records of births, weddings, phone numbers, anniversaries and just about anything else directly or indirectly connected with the Zanger family.

Get it? "Immaculate" records? For all we know, the parish may be keeping records, too.

And then there is this:

The unofficial "mandatory" get-togethers are Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, Mother's Day and Father's Day. And don't worry, there are plenty of other "excuses" for them to gather."We enjoy all of the family get-togethers," Leo Zanger said.

You could even say that it appears that they frequently go to church together. And through it all, there is something mysterious that connects them all, that keeps them close. You can see this in the final words of the story:

An obvious sense of family has been instilled in all the Zangers, a special bond that begins at the top with Leo and Ruth."All the grandkids know us," Ruth Zanger said.And that is something that will never get lost in any number, no matter how big a deal it is. 

Seriously. I think that the journalists missed a crucial part of the ties that bind in this large, large family. You think?

Categories: Main

Orlando Sentinel on lesbian couple: Fair reporting, but is it fair enough?

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

We at GetReligion talk a lot about fairness and balance, for reporting the pros and cons in a controversy. Yes, that's vital; but as in a story on a lesbian couple in Orlando, you need equivalent pros and cons. You also need to furnish background where needed.

And with the Orlando Sentinel's story on Jaclyn Pfeiffer and Kelly Bardier versus Aloma United Methodist Church, it was needed.

Basically, they were forced out from the church's daycare center. The couple said they were fired because they're gay. The church said they left voluntarily, and that they broke its rule for employees -- gay or straight -- to be celibate outside marriage.

Bishop Ken Carter of the UMC Florida Conference sided with the couple, agreeing to pay $28,476 to them and their attorneys. Carter scolded the church and said he would remind the state's other Methodist pastors "reminding them of the church policy against violating a person's civil rights based on sexual orientation," the Sentinel says.

Some of the story is a "they said - they said" matter, and the Sentinel scrupulously logs the argument without trying to settle it:

Govatos also said the issue was not whether they were gay, but whether they were sexually intimate while unmarried — a violation of church employment policy that applied to straight as well as gay individuals."The [day-care] director asked them if they were involved in a sexual relationship. Each one on their own admitted that they were," Govatos said.Meeks said they were never asked about whether they were sexually intimate — only whether they were in a relationship."My clients were never asked and never discussed that they were in a sexual relationship. They were never asked that question," Meeks said.

The newpsper quotes Pastor Jim Govatos of Aloma, as well as the couples' attorney. It also quotes a letter from the conference superintendent, the Rev. Annette Stiles Pendergrass. But I would have preferred a direct quote from Stiles or the bishop.

Also included is an accompanying video, which quotes only Govatos, who says church rules require "faithfulness in marriage and celibacy in singleness." We also should have heard directly from Pfeiffer and Bardier. If they left public communication to their lawyer, the Sentinel should have said so.

Another issue: The article makes it sound like this is all about what Aloma UMC says and does:

Govatos said even if Bardier and Pfeiffer were legally married in Florida, they could still have faced termination because Aloma UMC has not updated its policy to deal with same-sex marriage. Govatos, who is leaving Aloma for a position in Tallahassee within two months, said he thought it best for his successor to make that decision.

If it's all up to the congregation, why did Bishop Carter get involved? The answer is that the United Methodist Church is a "connectional" denomination, with congregations acting as branch offices of a corporation. It's different from, say, the Southern Baptist Convention, where all the congregations are independent corporations.

And the Book of Discipline, the basic United Methodist rulebook, is pretty clear on matters related to homosexuality. It says that gays have the right to become church members and take part in activities, but it adds:

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.

That stance makes the seven million United Methodists the largest mainline Protestant bloc that doesn't approve same-sex marriage -- an uncomfortable situation both with fellow churches and with news media. With approval by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in March, the Religion News Service ran a breathlessly enthusiastic story that placed the UMC "outside the same-sex marriage fold." And just in case we readers didn't pick up the attitude, RNS' "Slingshot" roundup added a kicker head: "Looking at you, Methodists."

The Book of Discipline can be changed only during the church's quadrennial legislative session. The next one is scheduled for 2016, and pro-gay groups are hard at work for change.

Any or all of this background would have helped the Orlando Sentinel story. It would have also armed the reporter to ask Bishop Carter how national policy squares with his emphasis on individual civil rights.

Aloma UMC didn't get into this problem in a vacuum; nor will the overall issue be settled in one. Including the larger context -- and notice, BTW, that all of the above was available online -- would have helped readers grasp better the events at Aloma's dayschool.

Photo: Still from Orlando Sentinel video interview with Pastor Jim Govatos.


Categories: Main

Buffalo paper posts intirguing piece on would-be nuns that omits a few questions

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

There’s been a lot of press in recent years about the newer more conservative type of American nun and how influxes of 20-something women joining fairly new religious communities.

That is, the new breed of nun isn't joining up with some of the traditional orders. They are inventing their own or joining communities that have taken old, old traditions and pulled them into the modern world, trusting that they are still relevant and will appeal to the young.

Here’s a story of a quintet of young women who are doing just that, care of the team at The Buffalo News

Nuns have long been the bedrock of the Catholic Church in Western New York. At the height of their numbers in the late 1960s, more than 3,500 sisters ministered in the region, teaching and healing hundreds of thousands of people in schools and hospitals. Hundreds of sisters remain active in the area today, but most are well into their 60s and 70s, and their communities have long passed the stage of being able to replenish themselves with fresh-faced recruits. Most communities of women religious in the area haven’t welcomed a new nun in decades. Some have given up on looking for candidates.Yet, on the Lake Erie shoreline in Derby, a Catholic retreat house now teems with the youthful exuberance of Martin and four other women, all in their 20s and hoping to become nuns together in what could be the first religious community built from scratch in the Buffalo diocese.

That's a nice punch statement in a summary paragraph. Now, here are some additional details.

Martin, 24; Nicolette Langlois, 28; Kristen Leaderstorf, 28; Alycia Murtha, 27; and Catherine Chance, 25, awake each morning by 5:30 a.m. and pray together for 45 minutes in the retreat house chapel. They eat breakfast and attend Mass together. They also pray together three more times throughout the day and eat dinner as a group. They call themselves Marian Franciscans and keep wooden Tao crosses draped around their necks and simple chains on their wrists, symbols of their devotion to St. Francis of Assisi and Mary, mother of Jesus.A full-fledged new congregation of women religious is still years away from being a reality. The group will need at least 40 members before it can receive official recognition from the Vatican. But Diocese of Buffalo Bishop Richard M. Malone already has given the small group his blessing to move forward. And on Saturday, Malone celebrated a special Mass in Our Lady of Victory when the five young women received their common garb as postulants.

There’s so much in this Buffalo News story that is engaging and interesting and it’s clear a lot of work went into this.

Sometimes religion coverage includes too many naysayers. In this case, there weren’t quite enough critical voices in the mix. Some critical questions went unanswered in this very earnest piece. Did the reporter look into how religious orders are founded? For five 20-somethings to decide they’re founding their own order is unusual, to say the least. 

Yes, new orders are being founded these days but they’re usually branches off a tree. The nuns involved have been part of a motherhouse elsewhere else. These women are all postulants together. Other than a priest who meets with them once or twice a month, there is no one directing them. Yes, their bishop has signed off on their establishment, so am wondering what he’s thinking about it all. Unfortunately, the story does not quote him. 

The number of U.S. nuns has dropped from about 180,000 to about 50,000 today; a 72 percent drop, which makes this counter-trend story even more pressing. It does mention several religious orders that have begun -- and flourished in recent decades, including the Dominican Sisters of Mary, the booming order started in 1997 now numbering more than 100 members. It was founded by four women who were professed nuns with another order. The story also mentions the Franciscan Sisters of the Renewal. But that was founded alongside a brotherhood established by several Capuchin priests.

Most of these new orders have substantial backing from existing convents or monasteries, but this one in Buffalo does not. Also, religious communities often need the help of a canon lawyer to help them put together a constitution and rules. This story didn’t mention that detail but a similar story in the diocesan newspaper did name such a person who is working with these women.

The story was quite long and I’m sure a lot was left on the cutting room floor. I think the reporter could have pressed these women more on why they couldn’t join an existing order in which they would at least be mentored until they took final vows. (Although an existing order may have made them pay off those college loans before joining up). The story does say that three of them lived 18 months with a Carmelite community. I would have liked another paragraph or two on what that taught them (and why they didn’t stay there). 

Also, the article profiles five young women. Their web site only mentions four. I assume their web site needs some work but it’s a bit odd when a story cites something that’s at least six months out of date. 

Whether or not one agrees with these women or thinks they may succeed long term, it was refreshing to read about their journey without the snark that often attends stories of people who give up family, children, money and sex to enter the religious life. 

Categories: Main

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously its strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

More on that in a minute, but let's continue with the basic facts of how the tiny hardback prayer book made its way home to America, with the help of grandson Brandon Hilte and a stranger on Facebook.

That man, Chris Cornelissen, said that he was trying to locate the owner."Chris contacted me and asked if I knew Larry Hilte," Brandon, 31, said. "He said, 'You probably won't believe this, but I have his prayer book.'"When he discovered the book, Cornelissen was on a historical walk through Bastogne, the centerpiece of the German army's last major offensive of the war in what turned out to be the renowned Battle of the Bulge.Curiosity led the avid WWII buff to a flea market in the heart of the city."At a small bookstand in the middle of one of the rooms, a Dutch lady was selling old field manuals, song books, pocket bibles and prayer books," Cornelissen said in an email to CeCe Brooks Hilte, Larry's wife of 15 years."After looking through some of them, I picked up a small black prayer book. It was not in perfect condition, but there was something else what made me instantly very interested. On the first page I found a name and address for Joseph Frank Hilte. Who was this man? Was it a soldier? Where did he fight? Would he still be alive? No doubt about it, I just had to buy it and start a research."

The book was given to older brother Joseph by their mother at the time of his first Holy Communion in 1930.

Oh, right. We are dealing with a Roman Catholic family -- a detail never mentioned in the story. Maybe everyone with a prayer book is Catholic? In an online video that goes with the story, is that a family member's white first Communion dress hanging on the wall with some treasured photos?

Details, details. The story has tons of great details about the war, the B-24 itself, the fighter plans that protected them, etc., etc. But the actual contents or use of that prayer book? Apparently there were no important significant or symbolic details there.

Later, readers are told these interesting facts:

Still spry at 88 with a shock of gray hair, twinkling eyes and a toothy grin, Hilte said that he thinks he knows how the book fell from the plane at 30,000 feet somewhere over the European theater."Most of the missions took seven or eight hours," he said about bombing runs that could cover 1,500 miles. "There was a lot of waiting around and it could be boring, so I'd climb up into the body of the plane and wrestle around with the waist gunners to pass the time. The prayer book was probably in my top pocket, and I guess it fell." ...When his grandson told him that the treasure was being returned, Hilte was incredulous. And when the prayer book arrived, he knew it was the real deal. "I recognized my mother's handwriting right away," he said about his late brother's name and address written in cursive on the first page.

By all means, read the whole story. This was a great, human hook for a story linked to Memorial Day.

Would it have been better with some of the religious details included? For example: Why did he take the book into his dangerous gunner's nest in the B-24? Were there favorite prayers in it that he read while flying into battle? Were the details of any of those prayers, just maybe, more poignant for a man in peril than, oh, the lyrics of a pop song that he may or may not have heard or loved?

Just asking. The Sun team had to work really hard to avoid the deeper religious angles of this human-interest story, but they pulled it off. Sad.

Categories: Main

A killer and a theologian: Touching CNN story gets jailhouse religion — and journalism

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Last month, we critiqued a New York Post story on Jeffrey Dahmer's killer that totally failed to get religion.

Basically, the piece was journalistic trash:

Believe it or not: a holy ghost in N.Y. Post exclusive on Jeffrey Dahmer's killer:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) April 29, 2015

Now, for something totally different: a touching CNN story that absolutely gets jailhouse religion — and journalism.

Really, this is an amazing, extremely well-told story:

How an unlikely friendship blossomed between a killer and a German theologian

— CNN Religion (@CNNbelief) May 25, 2015

The compelling lede:

Atlanta (CNN) A few months ago, Kelly Gissendaner wrote a letter to a pen pal across the Atlantic. She told him the state of Georgia was about to fix a date for her execution. One evening soon, she would be strapped to a gurney, needles would be inserted into her arm, and poison would course through her veins until she was dead.The letter arrived a few days later at the home of an 88-year-old man in Tubingen, Germany. After reading it, he took one of his white handkerchiefs, folded it neatly and placed it in an envelope to mail to Georgia's death row."When the tears are coming," he wrote, "take my handkerchief."The man in Germany was Jurgen Moltmann, an eminent theologian and author who met Gissendaner in prison in 2011. The two have kept in touch through letters ever since.The circumstances of their lives are vastly different. And yet, they found commonality.

Keep reading, and the story delves into the faith journeys of both Moltmann, who at age 18 was recruited into Adolf Hitler's army, and Gissendaner, who was sentenced to die for recruiting her boyfriend to kill her husband.

A reader who called our attention to CNN reporter Moni Basu's story commented:

Lots of good details and personal touches and observation on the interaction between German theologian Jurgen Moltmann and female Georgia death row inmate. But best of all, it allows for more than one side of a heated issue, in this case the death penalty, to be fairly represented. This story, at least in the view of this reader, makes the effort to get the religion at the heart of the matter.

Amen. Amen. And amen.

The other side of the story that CNN presents so masterfully:

Phil Wages, pastor at Winterville First Baptist Church near Atlanta, is among those who stand with the victim's family. He says he would never put his name to a petition seeking clemency for Gissendaner."Absolutely, I believe in the power of the Gospel to change anybody from a sinner to a saint, from having a heart of stone to heart of flesh," Wages says. "But I don't think change negates what the state of Georgia decided. There was enough evidence to convict her and give her the death penalty. Change does not get her a 'get out jail free' card."Wages was an officer in the Gwinnett County Police Department in 1997 and watched his colleagues bring in Gissendaner after her arrest. He says he is glad she turned to God."I think a lot of men and women behind bars would not have otherwise been interested in the Bible had they not been in such a difficult place," he says. "It does take suffering sometimes for people to begin to think about spiritual things."But he does not agree with the theology that drew Gissendaner to Moltmann's teachings."Moltmann believes God suffers with us," Wages says. "This is not the understanding of the church for thousands of years. I would argue that God is transcendent. He is above creation. Therefore, he can't suffer with us."

Kudos to the CNN writer for recognizing the value of telling the full story.

It's impossible to grasp the breadth of the piece based on the few snippets I have copied and pasted. I urge you to check out the story yourself. By all means, read it all.

Image via

Categories: Main

BBC pro visits 46 churches during Lent and shares what he saw, heard and felt

Monday, May 25, 2015

So here is a bonus think piece for this holiday, one of the most delicate and delightful pieces I have read in quite some time. Thank you to the folks (yes, hello GetReligion co-founder Douglas LeBlanc) who pointed it out.

The concept is rather simple and it's crucial to know that this was not an attempt to dig into religion NEWS, so much as religion CULTURE at the level of parishes and pews. So BBC broadcaster Adrian Chiles -- a convert to Catholicism -- decided to take on a unique Lenten discipline this spring, vowing to attend church for 46 days in a row.

The result: "What I learnt from 46 consecutive days in church." Let's let him pick up the narration near the top, as he explains the rules:

 I'm a Catholic, so it would be Mass every day for more than a month. It felt like it would be a real struggle -- a penance. It turned out to be anything but. It was a rich and enriching experience -- spiritually, obviously, but I was also enraptured by the churches themselves, the communities they serve, and the people with whom I shared all those Masses.I made it extra hard for myself by undertaking to go to a different church every day, so by Easter Sunday I'd been before 46 different priests in 46 different churches in 46 days.

There is no way to summarize this piece, to be honest with you. His observations about art, people, preaching, etc., must be read in context.

However, near the end there was this summary in which I could feel the journalistic instincts kick in a bit for Giles, as he looked for a few larger themes linked to demographics and the state of the modern church in post-Christian England and Europe:

Wherever I went in the country, and most of my Masses were in London, Birmingham, Swansea and Manchester, it was striking how similar the congregations were at weekday Masses. There's no getting away from it: the average age must be somewhere in the seventies. At 48, I spent most of this spring feeling like a spring chicken. But there was also invariably a young family of Asian origin, usually with young children. And at the 7 am Masses in Central London there was the odd go-getter, who strode out after Mass was ended as if they had hedge funds to run. They probably did.So, a mixed bag, as were the priests. A third of them I found to be great, with a handful quite life-changingly brilliant. Another third were sort of OK. The rest were pretty hopeless, not least because I often couldn't actually hear what they were saying. And a handful were grumpy to the point of malevolence.Spiritually, if I'm to really "connect" at Mass, I need a good priest to help me. And by good I mean, first and foremost, that they should look pleased to be there and pleased that we're there. Often they speak of great "joy" while looking as bored as swimming pool attendants.

And what about worship? Anyone who knows anything about Catholics in this day and age knows that there are few topics as tense and nasty as discussions about the state of the liturgy (and the priests who lead these rites). Giles is not going to provide comfort for traditional types. However, remember that most of his visitations took place on weekdays.

... With the liturgy -- essentially the same script which they do day in, day out -- the best of them find a way of making it sound fresh. As the inestimable Father Paul Addison of Our Lady of Delours in Kersal put it to me: "The clue's in the word; communion is all about communicating." And the same is obviously true of the sermon. One of the beauties of daily Mass is, frankly, its brevity -- invariably less than half an hour. Sometimes the sermon is dispensed with altogether, but often it just takes the form of a thought or two, which I find much easier to get my head round than one of Sunday's lengthy orations.

Read it all. I would especially be interested in hearing what Protestants think of this article. I mean, what would the low-church version of this essay consist of? Think about it.

Categories: Main

Your holiday think piece: View from other side of an advocacy journalist's notebook

Monday, May 25, 2015

It's a problem that your GetReligionistas face all the time: Many readers do not understand that columnists and opinion writers play by different rules than journalists who write hard news for traditional news organizations.

Yes, it doesn't help -- see this file on what we call "Kellerism" -- that many important mainstream journalists who should know better are blurring the lines between what many textbooks would call the "American model" of the press and the older "European model" which embraces advocacy journalism. This happens a lot when journalists cover debates about doctrine, sex and law.

As a rule, GetReligion focuses on mainstream, hard-news coverage of religion. However, from time to time we pass along "think pieces" that focus on subjects directly linked to religion-news coverage or topics that we think would interest our readers. Several readers sent us a link to a recent First Things piece that takes a critical look at a recent Huffington Post piece -- about same-sex marriage, of course -- that, according to a man interviewed for the HP piece, veered into creative fiction.

This raises a crucial question: What is the HP these days? It often contains serious news reported using a straight forward , hard-news approach, but it is also packed with opinion essays and advocacy pieces that reflect its liberal editorial point of view. So, can you criticize a liberal columnist for writing a liberal column? In this case, the First Things writer is alleging far more than mere bias. Thus, I thought our readers would want to read this interesting essay -- "A Muted Conversation on Traditional Marriage" -- written from the other side of the reporter's notebook.

The author is Andrew Cuff, an Eastern Orthodox Christian (yes, that is my flock as well) who is doing a doctorate in church history at the Catholic University of America. He explains that he rather reluctantly attended the recent March for Marriage in Washington, D.C. Here is a key chunk of the overture:

... My initial fears about the event were in part confirmed: There were plenty of tasteless and offensive picket signs. A Democratic State Senator from New York waved a cowboy hat and ranted about how much more Biblical he was than other Democrats. For some unfathomable reason, an evangelical group had hoisted a massive banner proclaiming “Halt Islam!” A Moses lookalike dressed in burlap held a massive bible and blew a four-foot ram’s horn. My friends looked at me uncomfortably. I was about ready to let my people go.But just as I was eyeing my exits, I was approached by a woman carrying a notepad who asked if she could interview me. She introduced herself as Lila from the Huffington Post, and we walked toward the Supreme Court chatting for about twenty minutes. It felt good to leave behind the raucous rally stage with its over-amplified demagogues bookended by loud rock-n-roll interludes. It was cathartic to be able to explain to Lila that people were here for many different reasons and a wide diversity of motivations, and that traditional marriage could not be reduced to platitudes.

Cuff is, in other words, a rather moderate if not liberal opponent of gay marriage. He admits that he hit the reporter with a wide range of rather complex, non-typical arguments on the subject of marriage. He noted: "Her eyes began to glaze over when I started quoting medieval philosophers."

The key is that the reporter, Lila Shapiro, works for the "Gay Voices" section of the Huffington Post. One does not expect to see balanced, nuanced journalism from such a source. Right? That would be like expecting a nuanced, balanced report on the work of Andrew Sullivan in a Focus on the Family publication.

But what about this?

I prepared myself to read her “spin” on what I said. I was surprised, though, when I saw that she disliked the interview so much that she just made up another one to replace it.According to her, I said the following: “I’m a married human being, so what does this mean for me? It’s against the way I see marriage. It’s against the way I see myself.” Shapiro scoffed, “Same-sex marriage is wrong because, well ... because it’s wrong.”An imaginative fabrication. Apparently I’m married? (I’m not). It was frustrating that after a twenty-minute interview in which I listed numerous reasons why government redefinition of marriage is bad for everyone, Shapiro published a (completely fictional) quote that boiled down to “it’s my personal opinion.” ...Yet this broach of journalistic ethics is more interesting than irritating to me. Shapiro said it herself numerous times: This issue is already decided. Public opinion has ruled: There are no good arguments for traditional marriage.So why should Lila lie? If my arguments were stupid, why not publish them?

Read it all. Clearly this is more than Kellerism. On one level, it is simple inaccuracy. But Cuff is saying that it appears he was intentionally misquoted, to ill effect. I would be interested in knowing if there are GetReligion readers who believe that is allowed in the context of what is clearly editorial, advocacy journalism.

In your comments, please stay focused on this central journalistic question.

Categories: Main

Washington Post gets it: The Duggar TV empire made all kinds of people nervous

Sunday, May 24, 2015

In recent days, I have had quite a few emails asking what the GetReligionistas think of the fall of Josh Duggar of the Family Research Council and then the whole "19 Kids and Counting" TLC reality-television empire.

As always, people seemed to be asking what we thought of the story itself, as opposed to our reactions to the mainstream news media coverage of the story. That's two different issues.

As always, most of the coverage has looked at the story through a political lens, asking how this scandal among hypocrites on the Religious Right would impact public debates about same-sex marriage, same-sex marriage and same-sex marriage.

That's an interesting angle, since I never got the impression -- as someone who has never seen a complete episode of the show -- that the Duggars were the kinds of folks who were very effective as apologists, when it came time to changing many minds on the cultural left. They seemed, to me, to be the ultimate preaching-to-the-choir niche media product. For those who are interested, here is the family's public statement on the controversy.

It's safe to assume that folks on the cultural left pretty much hated these folks, with good cause. The more subtle point is that the Duggars were also very controversial among evangelicals, including among folks who are often accurately described as very traditional, or even patriarchal, on family issues. This television empire made all kinds of folks nervous, with good cause.

Here is the key, if you want to dig into the serious coverage. How early does the name "Bill Gothard" appear and to what degree does the coverage make it sound like Gothard and his disciples represent mainstream evangelicalism or even orthodox (let alone Orthodox or Catholic) Christianity? At this point, I should note that I grew up in a conservative Southern Baptist home, the son of a pastor, yet in a family in which I don't think I ever heard a positive word spoken about Gothard and his whole "Institute in Basic Life Principles" world. Yet there were other Southern Baptists who took Gothard's word as gospel.

In other words, there is a division out there among conservative Christians on almost every topic linked to the Duggars and, especially, Gothard.

It's going to be painful, of course, but there is a lot of brokenness, dirt and sin here that needs to be covered in as factual -- and politically neutral -- manner as possible. The sins and crimes of children create complicated legal puzzles. Here are some strong words from blogger Owen "The Ochlophobist" White, as noted by Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher:

I am glad that the Duggars will no longer have a show about their family. That is a good thing that has come from these public revelations. But I am not comfortable with the media publicizing the mistakes that a child made. This strikes me as a very dangerous thing, and cruel.

Josh Duggar grew up in a home that was close to Bill Gothard. Gothard had to resign from his ministry because he fondled at least 32 girls. The Duggars were also connected with Doug Phillips, who was forced from his ministry after being outed as a sexual predator. The pastor of the Duggars' church, the man who gave Mrs. Duggar her Mother of the Year award, resigned after a sex scandal. The highway patrolman, a family friend and an elder in a church connected to the Duggars' religious circles, who was the first law enforcement person Jim Bob Duggar reported Josh's issues to, is now serving a 56 year prison sentence for child porn. Josh Duggar grew up in a home that revered men in leadership who have turned out to be sexual abusers. One way or another, Josh Duggar did to his sisters what he knew (intuitively or directly) to do.

Anyone who assumes that sexual abuse in the Duggar household begins and ends with Josh is living in a TLCesque unreality world.

My advice is that readers pretty much ignore the celebrations on the journalistic left and the apologetics on the pro-Duggar side -- unless they offer links to documents and transcripts. Read carefully -- especially when standing in the grocery line or watching television -- and look for the voices in the middle.

Here is a good place to start -- a Washington Post piece by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey and veteran Godbeat specialist Michelle Boorstein, which ran under the headline "How do evangelicals view the Duggars? It’s complicated." Here are two key chunks of this must-read feature:

“I think the big issue about them is whether they’re seen as any type of role model. In broad strokes, some would say: ‘Hey, I love what they’re doing, trusting God, putting priority on family, saying faith is important.’ Another group would say: ‘In no way shape or form do they represent me and my friends because who does this?” said Timothy Muehlhoff, a communications professor at the evangelical Biola University, where he directs their Center for Marriage & Relationships.When the Duggars first appeared on television in 2008, some evangelicals saw a fringe image of themselves, perhaps something like the experience of Mormons watching the reality show “Sister Wives,” about a polygamous family.

And also:

... The show divided evangelicals as much as it attracted them.“I feel like they’re very polarizing. I think for some people, they don’t know anybody who would ever make these choices. For other people in conservative Christian culture, they’re excited to see something at least vaguely familiar on screen,” said Rebecca Cusey, a senior contributor to The Federalist and film reviewer.Some evangelicals didn’t like being represented by such extreme gender roles, said Cusey. The Duggars are part of a subset of evangelicals who encourage patriarchal authority in the home. The children go through a parent-guided courtship before marrying. “While evangelicals will often talk about gender roles, the way it’s played out is nothing like how it’s played out with the Duggars,” she said.

Now, please note that there are plenty of people who embrace centuries of biblical teachings about marriage and family -- people who can accurately be called "patriarchal" in their approach -- who cannot be grouped with Gothard and his disciples. There are lots of folks who see "courtship" principles as being relevant in a hooking-up world, who do not use the same strategies as the Duggars.

In other words, journalists cannot assume that all doctrinally conservative Christians have the same beliefs on these issues, even if they are using some of the strange language.

But this Post story was a great opening salvo in what I hope is a stream of coverage of these debates.

Be careful out there.

Categories: Main

The Powers of negative thinking about the rise of America's 'illiberal left'

Saturday, May 23, 2015

It’s important to know right from the start that Kirsten Powers is a cradle liberal who has never once voted for a Republican.

She was a Clinton-Gore operative in 1992, a Clinton administration appointee, press secretary for Andrew Cuomo’s first New York governor race and held other partisan posts. She then shifted into opinion journalism, currently as a USA Today columnist and token liberal commentator on Fox News.

Powers’s credentials as a card-carrying political liberal have helped create buzz about her iconoclastic new “The Silencing: How the Left Is Killing Free Speech” (Regnery). It’s proclaimed “an important book” by no less than Ron Fournier, National Journal’s editorial director and former Washington bureau chief of The AP. More predictable praise comes from conservatives like Pulitzer Prize winners Charles Krauthammer and George Will, her fellow Fox pundits.

What possessed Powers to issue a broadside against what she calls “the illiberal left”?  Mainly two things. First, after a “cocooned” existence among New York City liberals, involvement with Fox News put her in touch with conservatives she disagreed with but came to appreciate as colleagues worthy of respect.

Then a bigger surprise. As she wrote in Christianity Today magazine the “flimsy” Episcopalianism  of her childhood had turned to fierce adult skepticism. But then came visits to New York’s Redeemer Presbyterian Church, open-minded reconsideration and an uncanny personal experience of Jesus, culminating in what was initially an “unwelcome” turn to a rather robust Christian faith.

Her new book asserts that “liberals are supposed to believe in diversity” but have developed “an alarming level of intolerance” and “an aggressive, illiberal impulse to silence people” that threatens conservatives, moderate Democrats and “those who hold orthodox religious beliefs” -- that is "unorthodox" to the cultural powers that be -- making them afraid to openly express their views. 

Faced with “being shunned by their peers or losing their job,” most such dissenters will keep silent, she observes. Political and religious conservatives “have told me chilling stories of intimidation, harassment, discrimination, denial of tenure, and more” that don’t appear in the book because “all were too fearful to go on the record” and endanger their professional futures.

Strong stuff. Though “Silencing” is mainly about secular politics, Powers contends that the militant Left “reserves a special strain of strident wrath for manifestations or protections of Christian belief.” Since current disputes often  involve gay marriage, note that Powers herself is a longtime and vocal supporter of that cause. But she sees fellow Christians who resist not as “bigots” but people following conscience and tradition. Her examples will be familiar to GetReligion readers:

* Mayors and universities seek to bar Chick-fil-A restaurants after the chain’s president opposes gay marriage, even though the chain does not discriminate against gay employees or customers.

* University professors are shunned for saying gay marriage foes have the right to speak.

* Religious adoption agencies are forced to shut down.

* California State University expels InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapters from its 23 campuses because it insists that student leaders affirm conservative Christian beliefs. Similar feuds erupt at 22 other colleges.

* Radical Islam is shielded and its critics subjected to derision.

Against that climate, Powers contends that a free society should always defend the right to express beliefs “without fear of official or unofficial retribution.” Unpopular ideas should be confronted by persuasion, not silencing. This is fair, just, and the American way, she believes. “No society can flourish without the clash of ideas.”

In other words, Powers is an old-fashioned liberal.

Footnote: Since George Stephanopoulos was a fellow Clinton staffer who made a similar career switch, here’s Powers’ similar columnizing on the ABC anchor’s current troubles:

“Like a fish doesn’t notice the water, today’s mainstream journalists are impervious to their bias in favor of Democratic candidates or liberal issues. They believe they are being objective because they have mistaken their ideological belief system for truth. As New York Times columnist Paul Krugman has noted repeatedly, ‘The facts have a liberal bias.’ This view has fertile ground in which to flourish, as the ideological and intellectual diversity of the nation’s newsrooms decreases.”
Categories: Main

Pod people: Talking scare quotes, red flags and other 'controversial' tools of religion journalism

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Got style?

In a couple of recent posts, I've delved into the nitty-gritty of religion news writing.

In one post, I focused on the specific language used in a USA Today story on Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee:

Speaking of 'so-called values issues,' let's stop editorializing by saying 'so-called':

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 8, 2015

In another post, I tackled the subject of scare quotes — a term that is familiar to regular Get Religion readers:

'Physician-assisted suicide' gets scare quotes. Why not 'aid-in-dying?': #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 20, 2015

On this week's episode of "Crossroads," the GetReligion podcast, host Todd Wilken and I discuss both those posts. Click here to tune in:

Bobby Ross Jr. on why language matters in journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 22, 2015

Besides addressing those posts, my interview with Wilken turns into a conversation about another recent post — this one on the use of the adjective "controversial" in journalism:

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

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) March 25, 2015

Trust me, it's fascinating stuff.

Enjoy the podcast.

As always, the smooth, relaxing Oklahoma accent is free.

Image via

Categories: Main

New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

Friday, May 22, 2015

"Courage is contagious," Billy Graham has said. "When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened."

Whether from courage or just old-school nose for news, the Religion News Service deserves thanks and applause for its Wednesday story on a new round of persecution in Sudan.

Remember Meriam Yayha Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was jailed and threatened with death last year? Well, something like that is happening again: The government there has jailed two pastors, charging them with spying and, according to RNS, with "assault on religious belief."

In a way, it's even worse this time around. Ibrahim was accused of "apostasy," deserting the Islamic faith. Her counter-argument was that her mother raised her as a Christian and she never converted to the faith of her father. She won her case and was released in a month, then emigrated to the United States.

In the current case, neither the Rev. Michael Yat nor the Rev. Peter Yein Reith is accused of leaving Islam. At bottom, their arrests stem from the creation of South Sudan in 2011 after a long, brutal civil war. Both ministers are members of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.

As RNS tells it:

Yat was arrested last year after visiting the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s Bahri congregation in Khartoum, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity that works on behalf of persecuted Christians.The congregation had resisted the takeover of the church by a Muslim businessman, who had demolished part of the worship center.In December, police beat and arrested 38 Christians for worshipping in the church.With Yat’s arrest, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church sent Reith with a letter to the authorities to demand his release. He was arrested on Jan. 11.

RNS adds that since the creation of South Sudan, the northern nation "has forced out all foreign missionaries, raided churches and arrested and interrogated Christians on grounds that they belonged to South Sudan." So Yat's and Reith's case is an apparent blend of governmental paranoia and Sudan's militant form of Islam.

Christian Solidarity Worldwide is a good source for this report. Groups like CSW and Forum 18 constantly track reports of religious persecution, regardless of headline value.

RNS may have gotten the idea from Christian Today, a non-mainstream news outlet. That site (not to be confused with Christianity Today) ran a long, 600-word piece on continuing violations of religious rights in Sudan. The story, by Kiri Kankhwende, press officer for Christian Solidarity, also reports the arrests of pastors Reith and Yat.

Kankhwende shows a sharp eye for the Sudanese socio-political context as well as that of religion:

The erosion of human rights in Sudan is not only restricted to freedom of religion or belief. The country's recent election, which saw the return of President Omar al Bashir, was marred by arbitrary arrests and enforced disappearances of opposition activists. Several opposition parties boycotted the vote entirely stating it would not be free or fair, which resulted in low voter turnout.Meanwhile, the situation for Sudan's religious minorities is more precarious. Although some religious groups have continued to practice their faith with limited government interference, it's questionable how long this freedom will remain, especially as President Bashir returns with what he considers to be a mandate from the people.

One could also look at African media. Sudan-based Radio Tamazuj reported Yat's arrest on Jan. 21. The report takes only six paragraphs, though.

Having provided the breakthrough in mainstream media , RNS' story has spread fast.

Huffington Post posted the story on Thursday. So did Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. So did Pulse, based in Nigeria.

And now that the story is out there, Agence France-Presse has awakened. AFP was in Khartoum on Tuesday when the trial began for Yat and Reith.  AFP was scrupulous in citing the opening statements of both sides:

At the opening of their trial, prosecutors called for them to be convicted of crimes against the state and the constitution, as well as crimes of hatred, inciting ethnic hatred, espionage, and disrupting public order.

"Their mission is to preach the Christian religion, and there is nothing in Sudanese law against this," said their lawyer, Muhannad al-Hussein.

In its story, RNS quotes a couple of great sources: CSW's chief executive, Mervin Thomas, and the Rev. Kori Romla Koru, general secretary of the Sudan Council of Churches. I would have liked also to see something from a governmental official, and a Sudanese Muslim leader as well. An imam of a mosque near the beleaguered church would have been a good idea, too.

The article also didn't explain the "takeover" of Reith's church by a Muslim businessman. Who was he, and how he do that? Did he buy it? Get the government to condemn it on some pretext? And did RNS seek out a quote from him?

In fairness, I should note that Kiri Kankhwend's article -- which ran four days earlier in Christian Today -- didn't even mention the takeover, let alone ask the above questions.

But with the trial on news media radar, we may get details on that and other facets. Kudos still goes to Religion News Service for turning the spotlight on a story that should get attention not just from Christians, but from any freedom-loving person.

Oppressors of all types thrive when nobody knows or cares what they do. In Sudan, RNS is helping to deny them that luxury.

Photo: An unidentified child prays in an outdoor church in South Sudan in 2013. Photo by John Wollwerth via

Categories: Main

Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

Friday, May 22, 2015

As we all know, religious doctrines are bad. Thus, breaking them is good. That seems to be the implication of a bizarre news item -- a piece of aggregation, actually -- sent to your GetReligionistas the other day.

The key, as in many mistakes involving aggregated news, is that the writer appears to have spent zero time or energy investigating the facts of the story. In fact, it appears that the AOL desk didn't even pay that much attention to the New Zealand Herald story it was slicing and dicing. The goal was a conflict-driven click-friendly headline: "Sikh man breaks religious rules, removes his turban to help an injured boy." As a reader noted:

The title and the bulk of the article attempt to create a conflict between the "rules" of religion and real compassion. On the plus side, the article does note that "the Sikh religion makes exceptions for taking off a turban in emergencies," yet it still plays up the phony conflict.

Let's look at two pieces of this short item:

A New Zealand Sikh put religion aside and took off his turban to help an injured child.The New Zealand Herald reports 22-year-old Harman Singh saw a 5-year-old boy had been struck by a car outside of his home Friday. Despite religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban and show his hair in public, Singh didn't hesitate to take off his headdress and cushion the bleeding child's head.

You have to love the "put religion aside" reference and the reference to "religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban." The key word is "permitting."

Now, clearly, removing the turban is a very serious issue for a Sikh, as anyone who has covered a story about this faith knows (click here for some background information). Under certain conditions, Sikhs will resist all efforts to remove the turban -- especially efforts to shame them or attack their faith. However, the story seems to ignore the fact that this faith has other values and doctrines that can transcend this key element of its piety.

The AOL story, just a few lines later, even shares information that blows up its own framework about religious rules. Singh notes that:

... the Sikh religion makes exceptions for taking off a turban in emergencies, but members of the Indian community, and people all over the planet, are praising Singh for his actions.

Wait a minute. You mean there are OTHER doctrines relevant in this crisis? You mean that other Sikhs know that and, thus, are not criticizing this man? There is the key: If other members of the faith do not see this action as a violation of their doctrines, then why say that Singh was putting religion aside and violating rules that did not permit him to remove the turban?

The actual Herald story did a better job of balancing these doctrinal issues. The word "protocol" seems a bit strange to me, but perhaps it is more common in this context on the other side of the world.

Harman Singh did not think twice about removing his turban to cradle the bleeding head of a 5-year-old who had just been hit by a vehicle on his way to school.Mr Singh, 22, was at home when he heard car wheels screeching, and then a commotion, and ran outside to investigate. "I saw a child down on the ground and a lady was holding him. His head was bleeding, so I unveiled my turban and put it under his head."Members of the Indian community last night praised Mr Singh for his action, considered a hugely significant act of humanity by breaking strict religious protocol to help a stranger. ... Mr Singh acknowledged the rare step he took to help, but said that protocols of his faith did not restrict certain actions in an emergency.

Another plus was a quotation from another Sikh who was present at the scene:

Gagan Dhillon said he was on his way to work when he saw the accident and stopped to help."There was enough help as there was, but being a Sikh myself, I know what type of respect the turban has. People just don't take it off -- people die over it."I saw him [Mr Singh] with no head covering and thought, 'That's strange'. But then I saw one hand was underneath the boy's head supporting it and his siropao [turban] was stopping the bleeding. ... He didn't care that his head was uncovered in public. He just wanted to help this little boy."

The bottom line: Is it a conflict with one's religion when a believer violates a crucial element of his faith in order to follow a higher, more urgent doctrine in a crisis situation? If there are no Sikh critics of this man, where is the conflict that justifies a statement that Singh was not PERMITTED to take the action that he took?

Bizarre things happen in the world of quickie, click-friendly news writing.

Categories: Main

Media coverage on Boy Scouts ranges from excellent to inexcusably biased

Friday, May 22, 2015

Thursday’s announcement by Robert Gates, president of Boy Scouts of America, that the group may need to change its policy on gay leaders drew a predictable avalanche of coverage, some of it very good and some of it a mess.

Some background: The Scouts have been fighting this battle for at least two decades. Some of you may remember the Supreme Court’s 2000 ruling in Boy Scouts of America vs. James Dale that allowed the Boy Scouts to exclude gay leaders. That was 15 years ago.

As for the latest news, we’ll start off with today's Los Angeles Times Page 1 story:

Robert M. Gates, the president of the Boy Scouts of America, urged the group on Thursday during its annual meeting in Atlanta to end its ban on gay leaders, saying the prohibition “cannot be sustained.”“I truly fear that any other alternative will be the end of us as a national movement,” said Gates, former CIA director and secretary of Defense.He recommended that local Scouting groups be allowed to decide for themselves whether to allow gay leaders.Advocates of gays in Scouting cheered in celebration.“He's made it clear that if the Boy Scouts don't make the change on their terms, the courts will change it on their terms,” said Zach Wahls, an Eagle Scout and executive director of the advocacy group Scouts for Equality.“Now we need to make sure not only does that ban come to an end, but that it's enforced across the country,” Wahls said, adding, “There needs to be full inclusion for gay adults.”Others had a more mixed reaction.“It's one of those things I was hoping I wouldn't have to think about for years to come,” said David Barton, an Orange County Cubmaster, assistant Scoutmaster, Eagle Scout and the father of two boys in Scouting.

The reporter did a very thorough job of calling around to every religious group possible: Southern Baptists, Mormons, a Texas-based values group, Catholics, as well as a gay Scoutmaster who was forced to leave his troop. It was a lengthy, comprehensive piece.

Sadly, a lot of media weren’t as fair as the Times. Check out this story by CNN that doesn’t even bother to include the opinions of conservatives who disagree with Gates. Or this short piece that ran on The Atlantic’s website:

Despite the flurry of recent activity, Zach Wahls of Scouts for Equality told me that the movement to permit gay youths and gay adults began in earnest in the 1970s. One particular turning point was a Supreme Court decision in 2000 that reaffirmed the group’s constitutional right to ban gay members.That decision cost the organization some of its more politically neutral local sponsors upon which the group relies. “When the Scouts won their Supreme Court case, all the public schools walked away,” Wahls said.

Zach Wahls obviously had a busy day on Thursday, as he’s quoted everywhere. But did the reporter have to take on face value Wahls’ contention that public schools “walked away”  from the Scouts after 2000?

According to this pro-gay site, school districts were subjected to the tender mercies of the Lambda Legal Defense folks who put quite a bit of pressure on schools to kick out the Scouts. Let’s not forget the ACLU, which threatened in 2005 to sue schools nationwide that charter Boy Scout troops. It’s pretty tough to stand up to that kind of full-court press.

This USA Today story was pretty evenhanded in that it explained Gates’ announcement and his reasoning, inserted quotes from two religious organizations that think the Scouts should still ban gay leaders, followed by quotes from two gay-rights groups that think the Scouts must change.

Religion News Service picked up USA Today’s story but posted an edited version that cut out the quotes from the religious groups while retaining quotes from one of the gay rights groups. What’s up with that?

The future of the Boy Scouts cries for many more follow-ups.

Religious groups that were caught flatfooted by this week's announcement may come up with more cogent responses. While it's true each sponsor of a local troop can decide the make-up of its leaders, what will happen when the local ACLU threatens to sue them?

This set of dominoes is going to fall fast. I'm hoping that media organizations that ran articles cheerleading Gates' announcement buckle down and actually cover the debate. That is, both sides of it.

Categories: Main

Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

Friday, May 22, 2015

When I was a lad back in the early 1960s, my father left his work as a Southern Baptist pastor in inner-city Dallas and took a position in North Texas, near the base of the Panhandle, that was often referred to as an "associational missionary." It helps to know that Southern Baptists have regional "associations," as opposed to conferences, presbyteries or dioceses.

One of the primary duties of this associational leader, in addition to serving as a pastor or consultant to the region's pastors, was to direct efforts in what has long been called "church planting." The goal was to figure out logical places to "plant" effective new churches and then help people do precisely that. Click here for a rather mainstream take on this topic, from a middle-of-the-road Protestant flock up in Canada.

There was nothing sneaky or threatening about this work, at least not in Texas a half century ago.

It seems that times have changed, at least in some blue zip codes. Either that, or some journalists simply have zero familiarity with how church leaders think and talk? Yeah, that could be what we are dealing with here.

But maybe not! As several people have noted in emails to me -- including a former GetReligionista known as a wit -- the following Alternet piece may not, as it appears, be a stunningly tone-deaf look at a perfectly normal church topic.

No, this Boston Review "education" beat piece might be satire. Maybe? We want GetReligion readers to help us decide!

Yes, I am asking: Might this piece be just a touch TOO BIZARRE to be taken seriously? Might there be someone there who was writing a piece so hostile to ordinary Christian believers and workers that it wasn't really hostile at all?

I mean, if a conservative Christian publication put this out everyone would KNOW that the editors were satirizing how way too many mainstream journalists see evangelicals and other traditional church leaders. Let's start with the headline:

How Evangelists Are Using 'Church Planting' to Retake Secular BostonThe approach uses public schools and other publicly funded spaces to facilitate a religious revival.

Right there, you see the first hints at satire -- starting with the use of the word "evangelists" rather than "evangelicals." And then there is the "public schools" strategy reference, while the piece does not contain a single use of the term "equal access," as in the equal access concepts made popular by the Clinton-Gore White House during a happier era in church-state law.

So here is the top of the piece:

The business of evangelism is old, but its methods are constantly changing. In recent years, evangelism in America has undergone a little-noticed but profound change in its organization, tactics, and culture. There is no better illustration of the new way of doing business than the appearance of evangelical activists in Boston, of all places. Boston isn’t a likely candidate for missionary activity, but evangelicals have long dreamed of capturing the birthplace of the American Revolution. Only in the past few years have they found an efficient means to launch their long hoped-for revival. They call it “church planting.” Missionary preachers create and house new congregations, often in inexpensive or state-subsidized locales. Sometimes the church planters establish their own worship services at existing yet underused church buildings. Other times, they rent out or borrow space in community centers, movie theaters, hotels, and other facilities. One relatively new tool of the church planting strategy is the public school system. In public schools across the country, the new evangelists have discovered facilities that can be made available to churches at relatively low or no cost -- except, presumably, to local taxpayers. In some places, including New York City, the churches have not paid any rent at all.

Righto. And this a brand new thing, a dangerous new strategy in blue zip codes alone.

Hilarious. And this business of using equal access to public buildings is BRAND NEW too, which is why the Clinton-Gore era church-state specialists were already making sure people had a plan for dealing with these already old and familiar questions back when?

Read it all. Is this satire or what?

Categories: Main

The Oregonian finally has a religion writer who's pursuing the beat

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Seattle University is one of those institutions that conservative Catholics love to hate.

Not only does the Jesuit school host an annual Lavender Celebration that has honors such as the “Sylvia Rivera Award for Queer Activism,” but it includes faculty who write books such as “A Brief, Liberal, Catholic Defense of Abortion.” Alhough it's odd that a Muslim cleric might feel at home there,  what is interesting is that the story about this imam first ran in the Oregonian.

The premise of Abdullah Polovina's story sounds like the start of a bar joke:A Muslim imam walks into a Catholic university...Except it's true. Polovina, who leads a congregation of Bosnian Muslims in Portland, did walk into a Catholic university.And in June, he'll walk out to "Pomp and Circumstance." The 41-year-old recently completed a master's degree at Seattle University's School of Theology and Ministry, where he was the first Muslim to ever enroll."I was looking for a place to be accepted as myself and to be the true face of Islam, though I am not the best follower," Polovina said.

I first spotted this story in a Washington state newspaper, which had picked it up because there’s a reporter at “the Big O” who has reinvigorated the religion beat. Or the “faith and values” beat, as they call it. Whatever.

Melissa Binder is a fairly recent college grad (University of North Carolina -- Chapel Hill) who moved west almost two years ago, worked a metro beat for awhile, then petitioned the higher ups to give her a chance to revive the religion beat.

The Oregonian has had Godbeat reporters in the past, including Velma Clyde in the 1970s and Mark O’Keefe, whose award-winning 1998 series on worldwide persecution of Christians was a high point for God coverage in the Beaver State. Since then, the beat has faded, never regaining the heights to which O’Keefe took it.

Oregon has consistently scored in the top five of least-religious states but more recent data has shown spiritual interests in 61 percent of the state’s residents. And so while other reporters might jump in with the occasional religion story -- including my brother Steve Duin whose metro column touches more than a few times on religion -- the beat itself hasn’t gotten a whole lot of TLC.

From what I can tell, Binder has jumped right in, writing up everything from LGBT Christians to the latest on “The Shack” author William Paul Young who lives just outside of Portland.

So back to Polovina. There’s a few things I would have liked to have seen in this story. The Seattle Times quoted the imam in 2012 as opposing gay marriage, so I’m curious what he thought of the Lavender Celebrations and the school’s gay-affirming atmosphere. I’d like to know what sort of classes he took in the theology school, which is taking credit for breaking the story on him. And I hope the folks who run the Oregonian's newsroom can free Melissa Binder up from having to blog tons of faith/values click bait long enough to do thoughtful pieces of the sort that have won the newspaper eight Pulitzer prizes.

Religion stories can win journalism's highest honor. Just ask the Boston Globe.

Photo via Jeremy Dunham Photo

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State of Palestine coverage: What did pope say? What did it mean?

Thursday, May 21, 2015

It broke as do so many stories that burst upon the 24/7 media scene these days -- with a tweet, followed by nearly 3,000 retweets. 

BREAKING: Vatican officially recognizes `state of Palestine' in new treaty.

— The Associated Press (@AP) May 13, 2015

A major diplomatic step forward for Palestinians in their quest to establish an independent state, right?

Sure sounds like it. But no, although clearly another international boost for the Palestinians, it was not the groundbreaking achievement the initial Tweet implied.

That's because the Vatican actually recognized Palestine as a state in 2012. What happened this time was the Vatican referred to Palestine as a state, a reaffirmation at most, in a new treaty between the two entities concerning Church interests in the Holy Land. (The Vatican recognized Israel in 1993.)

What it was, instead, is another example of how the ultra-competitive race to be first to break news too often results in incomplete information that, for a spell, sets the journalistic world abuzz for no good reason.

Alas, that's just how it is in the no-time-to-think Twitter-sphere. 

The confusion surrounding the Catholic church and the Palestinians escalated considerably at last week's end when virtually all (as far as I can tell) major international media reported that Francis called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas an "angel of peace." It remains unclear, as of my writing, whether the pope was quoted correctly or whether he said he hoped -- big difference -- that Abbas would act like an angel of peace or something else. I'll get back to this point below.

Look, I get it. Super fast dissemination, like it or not, is what it takes to survive in today's news business. Moreover, as a mass market wire service veteran (United Press International, New York and San Francisco bureaus, 1967-1969), I dictated to rewrite my share of bare-bones first ledes that later proved overblown, misleading or flat out wrong. 

Yet it seems that these sort of failings happen more frequently today. Or perhaps the public, which Includes me, is just more aware of them thanks to constant cell phone updates and cable news stations desperate to report something new to fill airtime and garner eyeballs. And let's not forget the cacophony of bloggers, obsessive media watchers, partisans and others quick to have their say on the web. The attention payed to out-of-the-gate reporting gaffs is just so much greater today.

The AP Vatican tweet wasn't incorrect so much at it was incomplete, which is what set the buzz a-buzzing. Moreover, the AP story that followed the Tweet included the appropriate context that made the story understandable. Again, not a groundbreaking development but just another twist of the screw in the highly charged and oh-so-closely reported Israel-Palestine conflict. So everything's copacetic, right?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, because the requisite background was included.

No, because there remains the  problem of all those with a stake in the story, including competing journalists and, in particular, partisans on all sides feeling the need to react immediately -- by which I mean instantaneously -- in an effort to control the media narrative that follows. This, of course, further feeds the media frenzy and, before long, the story's most headline-grabbing aspect becomes the takeaway, warranted or not.

Of all the stories I saw on this, one of the most accurate next day print pieces was in The Washington Post. The Post even mentioned the initial confusion over the historicity of the Vatican's treaty announcement.

One of the clearest same-day online commentary pieces I read was this one published by Tablet, an American Jewish website that generally leans center-right on Israel.

Now what about that "angel of peace" quote? The initial mainstream media reporting, as I said above, appeared to fully align with these New York Times and Reuters pieces.

But Tom Gross, writing on The Weekly Standard website, soon blew that reporting apart with this piece, in which he meticulously picked apart the big guys' stories. His reporting was quickly picked up by other right-of-center outlets happy to stick it to their ideological opponents in the ongoing Middle East media war.

The Times, in what reads like a correction of the "mistakes were made" variety, followed up with a nuanced piece that sought to explain how it's reporting may have been off-base. But that's not the end of the saga. America, a progressive Catholic publication, issued its own postmortem in which it fingered the reporters' pool report for the verbal confusion and injected yet another interpretation of what the pontiff may have said.

And who is Tom Gross? He's one of those independent media watchers I referenced who specializes in Middle East issues. British-born, he's very well-informed, highly experienced, thought highly of in pro-Israel media circles and regularly reports what others have overlooked.

So what's the bottom line for journalists and media consumers?

When it comes to long-entrenched conflict stories of global interest that multiple actors want to manipulate for maximum p.r. value, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, take a deep breath, if at all possible, before deciding which "truth" is the truth.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict rarely moves forward in leaps and bounds, even when blood is flowing, despite what daily headlines, and certainly tweets, may insist is big news or an accurate rendering of events. It's a slow, slow slog that, unfortunately, will remain a huge story for years to come until at least one of the sides becomes exhausted. Confused reporting that produces more smoke than fire will remain one of the constants.

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In Illinois, gay conversion therapy bill passes, and front-page Chicago Tribune story misses the mark

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Here we go again.

At GetReligion, we repeatedly have highlighted the media misconception that Christian therapists believe they can "pray the gay away."

Tmatt tackled the subject again just last month:

News about 'conversion' therapies for gays? As usual, one side gets to offer its views

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) April 15, 2015

The latest news comes from Page 1 of Wednesday's Chicago Tribune:

Gay conversion therapy ban gains steam. Kids shouldn't be told they're diseased, sponsor says

— Chicago Tribune (@chicagotribune) May 19, 2015

Here's the lede:

Following a series of big wins during the past decade that culminated in the approval of same-sex marriage in Illinois, the new cause for gay rights supporters at the Capitol is banning conversion therapy on minors — a controversial practice aimed at changing a person's sexual orientation from gay to straight.The effort gained momentum Tuesday as the Illinois House voted to approve the measure 68-43 after the bill failed in the chamber last year. The bill now goes to the Senate, which tends to be more liberal.

Under the proposal, mental health providers would be barred from engaging in treatment aimed at changing the sexual orientation of minors. Psychologists, therapists, psychiatrists, social workers and counselors caught doing so could be deemed as engaging in unprofessional conduct by state regulators and face disciplinary action ranging from monetary fines, probation, or temporary or permanent license revocation.

See any problem with that?

To that question, a fellow GetReligionista replied:

You mean other than the lede misstating the goals of most people who do this work, focusing on behavior rather than the mystery of orientation? 

For much more insight on that, I strongly urge you to click the link and read tmatt's post from last month. For a little more background, see a Christianity Today story I wrote in 2009 on "sexual identity therapy," which focuses on helping a person live in a way that is consistent with his or her beliefs. 

Back to the Tribune story: To its credit, the Chicago newspaper does reflect, to some extent, the complicated nature of this discussion:

Some Democrats also raised concerns, including Rep. Bob Rita, D-Blue Island, who voted against the conversion therapy ban last year and did not vote Tuesday. Rita argues the government needs to be careful about limiting counseling to people who are looking for help.

"I think it's a very slippery slope, and when we're dealing with issues where people are seeking help, we should be careful on how we limit that help," he said.

Others insist conversion therapy can be helpful to youths who don't want to be attracted to the same sex.

David Pickup, who practices the therapy in Texas, testified against Illinois' potential ban, saying it robs youths of the opportunity to seek help for unwanted same-sex attraction. He said not all conversion therapists treat homosexuality as a disease or shame their patients, and that the "real thing" helped save his life after he experienced attraction to men.

"This bill robs, I assure you, this bill robs that person for whom homosexuality does not represent their authentic selves," he told lawmakers. "This bill attempts very laudably to protect one group of people but at the demise of another group of people."

As the Tribune notes, the Illinois measure now goes to the state Senate.

Stay tuned.

Illinois Capitol image via

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Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers mean?

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Ed Stetzer suggests the rise of the “nones” -- the religiously unaffiliated -- is a dual trend. On the one hand, the more nominal “cultural Christians” are no longer self-identifying as Christians, and on the other hand the more theologically conservative Christians are becoming more robust. What are the political consequences?


Following Joshua’s posting, the Pew Research Center issued an attention-getting “Religious Landscape Study” of the U.S. that appears to support such a scenario. Introductory notes: “Nones” is shorthand for folks who say “none” when pollsters ask about their religious self-identity. The Pew study calls them “unaffiliated,” whether agnostic, atheist, or the largest subgroup,  those whose religious identity is “nothing in particular.” Stetzer is a church planter turned LifeWay researcher and seminary teacher on mission analysis.

Pew has produced a mass of data that will be chewed on for years. A huge sample size of 35,071 U.S. adults made possible accurate and detailed breakdowns for religious groups. The respondents were interviewed in mid-2014 by phone in either English or Spanish. Unlike most polling with its crude categories, scholars helped Pew frame careful questions to separate out “mainline” Protestants (in 65 sub-categories) from the more conservative “evangelicals.” Keep in mind that there are also significant numbers of self-identified “evangelicals” in “mainline” groups, and in the third Protestant category of “historically black” churches. Since Pew posed these same questions to another large sample in 2007, it can offer timeline comparisons.

The two surveys show that, yes, the “unaffiliated” are increasing. They constituted 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 and jumped to 22.8 percent as of 2014 to become the nation’s second-largest religious category. Evangelical Protestants maintain first place with 25.4 percent of Americans versus the previous 26.3 percent. Catholics now rank third at 20.8 percent, substantial shrinkage from the prior 23.9 percent. Mainline Protestants did a bit worse, sliding from 18.1 percent to 14.7 percent, partly because too many raised in these churches turn irreligious. The “historically black” Protestants slipped a bit, from 6.9 percent to 6.5 percent of the population.

So the evangelicals’ market share dropped less than a percent relative to a growing population, and they continued to grow in absolute numbers, from a projected 59.8 million to 62.2 million. If the stereotype is correct that they’re especially devoted to their faith, Stetzer’s theory holds up, and likewise with Pew’s finding that the “unaffiliated” are becoming less religious in outlook.

Pew further tells us that American adults identifying as “Christian” of whatever sort have declined from 78.4 percent in 2007 to 70.6 percent. That reflects growing religious diversity and cultural secularism, and the declining rate of marriage among younger Americans. (On one disputed matter, Pew data indicate a U.S. Muslim population of 2.2 million adults.)  Churches  should avoid doom-saying, considering that the U.S. remains one of the world’s most devoutly and actively Christian nations. Further perspective: A Pew footnote reminds us that Roger Finke and Rodney Stark reported in “The Churching of America, 1776-1990″ that formal church membership -- as opposed to polls like Pew’s that ask people how they identify themselves -- “has increased dramatically over the nation’s history.” They estimated that only 17 percent of Americans belonged to a religious congregation in 1776, compared with 62 percent in 1980.

Jonathan Merritt of Religion News Service twits the evangelicals as wrong-headed for “peddling” the claim that the Pew study shows religious conservatism causes growth and liberalism causes decline.

Continue reading "Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers really mean?" by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

'Physician-assisted suicide' gets scare quotes, but 'aid-in-dying' doesn't. Why?

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Let's talk scare quotes for a moment.

Regular GetReligion readers know what we mean when we use that term.

But in case you're new to this nerdy journalism site focused on mass media coverage of religion news, click here to review past examples.

I bring up this topic again today because of a note I received from a regular reader, who opined:

Notice how whenever the Left invents a new phrase, the media adopt it immediately and uncritically, while well-known, long-understood and uncontroversial words and phrases get scare quotes? Oh, of course you do."Aid-in-dying" gets no scare quotes, while "religious freedom" always does? 

The reader included a link to a San Francisco Chronicle story:

Medical group drops opposition to aid-in-dying bill.

— The Chronicle (@sfchronicle) May 20, 2015

Actually, the Chronicle lede does include scare quotes — just not around the phrase 'aid-in-dying":

SACRAMENTO — The California Medical Association has become the first state medical association in the nation to drop opposition to what has long been known as “physician-assisted suicide,” it said, acknowledging a shift in doctor and patient attitudes about end-of-life and aid-in-dying options.The move comes as the doctors organization removed its opposition Wednesday to a controversial aid-in-dying bill that would allow terminally ill Californians to end their lives with doctor-prescribed drugs.The medical association recently changed its internal policies so that it is neutral on the issue, deleting language that referred to aid in dying as “physician-assisted suicide.” The group has long opposed aid in dying on grounds that it violates doctors’ ethical and moral obligations to provide the best treatment possible.

So why does "physician-assisted suicide" demand quote marks, while "aid-in-dying" does not?

Like the San Francisco paper, the Los Angles Times presents "aid-in-dying" with no scare quotes:

California physicians end opposition to aid-in-dying bill

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) May 20, 2015

Last year, though, the Times did use quote marks around "aid in dying":

New Mexico judge affirms right to 'aid in dying' for terminally ill

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) January 20, 2014

The Los Angeles newspaper has varied, too, on scare quotes — or not — on "religious freedom":

Indiana's changes to 'religious freedom' law don't go far enough, critics say

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) April 2, 2015

After Indiana furor, proposed religious freedom law in Georgia dies

— Los Angeles Times (@latimes) April 4, 2015

Back to the reader's original question: In the case of "aid-in-dying," does the lack of scare quotes reflect media bias? Or is there a legitimate journalistic reason why "physician-assisted suicide" or "religious freedom" might get the scare quote treatment while "aid-in-dying" does not?

Here at GetReligion, we really are nerdy enough that we want to discuss such intricacies of media coverage. If you, too, are truly interested in the journalistic issue raised, please join the discussion below or tweet us at @GetReligion. Trolls and others who disrespect our commenting policy will be zapped into giant black holes.

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