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Updated: 3 min 33 sec ago

Washington Post offers totally haunted look at one family's pain and glimpses of heaven

3 hours 56 min ago

The Zika virus is all over the news, right now, so it isn't surprising that journalists are looking for other news stories they can connect to it.

This past week, I received several notes from readers about the following Washington Post "Inspired Life" feature. One came with the traditional trigger warning: "Have tissues ready."

The reader could have added this warning: "Prepare to read about a powerful human drama that is haunted by a religion ghost." The headline: "What this amazing mom of two girls with microcephaly has to say about Zika scare." Here is the classic feature-story overture:

Gwen Hartley’s 19-week sonogram was normal. Her baby girl, her second child, was going to complete her storybook life. She’d married her high school sweetheart, they already had a healthy son, a house and a dog.When Claire was born, Hartley looked adoringly into her daughter’s big eyes and remembered thinking that she’d forgotten how tiny a newborn’s head was. Then the doctors whisked her baby away. Something was wrong. Something that couldn’t be fixed.After a series of misdiagnoses, the Hartleys, of Kansas, were told Claire had microcephaly, a serious birth defect that causes babies to have extremely small heads and brains, and, in her case, made it unlikely she would live beyond a year. Almost five years later, Claire was defying the odds and, although she couldn’t speak or walk or even sit upright, she was a happy and vibrant child. The Hartleys felt ready to get pregnant again. Rounds of genetic testing had not revealed anything to suggest Claire’s microcephaly was anything but an anomaly.

Then, at the 26-week point, a sonogram showed that their unborn child's head was too small. The odds of microcephaly striking again?

Now stop and think about this: Isn't there an unstated question at this point in the story? What kind of advice might the doctors have offered to this traumatized mother concerning this, some would say, doomed pregnancy?

One thing is clear. The Hartleys of the heartland decided to let the pregnancy proceed. Might this be a hint of some kind of religious worldview at work?

Later, readers are told:

The vision of their perfect life had been shattered, and they had no idea how long they’d have their baby girl. But Hartley’s priorities shifted in those 12 months. Perfect was in the eye of the beholder, and to her, she still had the perfect family. She was going to stop mourning the life she didn’t have and celebrate the one she did.When Lola was diagnosed, some of those negative thoughts seeped back. Knowing the life expectancy of these children was still short, she worried about how she would bury two children someday. Recalling these feelings now, Hartley started to cry. “It’s hard to think about that,” she said, her voice catching. But she doesn’t let those fears stay around too long.“This is the baby I’m supposed to be a mom to,” she said. “I would be missing out on a gift that had been given to me.”

A gift? Yes, we have another unstated question. However, the Post team -- once again -- let's the implied statement of religious convictions, of some kind, pass by without question or comment. Strange.

But that was not the end of hinting, by this "amazing mom." You see, Gwen Hartley has a blog where speaks for herself.

In a recent post, she wrote about how she’d dreamed Lola could walk. Once, those dreams would have left her with a longing for all she couldn’t have, she wrote, but there was a peace to this one.“It felt a little bit like a fast forward of our lives … and as hard as it is for me to say this (I almost don’t even want to go there), it almost felt like Heaven -- how I imagine it will be when we reunite someday on the other side,” she wrote. “I was able to see my little girl in such a different light. I know her heart inside & out already, but seeing her explore her world & delight in the little things felt like a lifetime worth of happiness condensed into one breathtaking moment.”

Now, it's clear that Hartley is writing this blog to a wide, diverse audience. She did not add denominational details. Still, as one reader noted, concerning the Post article:

Catholic Heaven? Baptist Heaven? Who knows? She also says, “This is the baby I’m supposed to be a mom to . . . I would be missing out on a gift that had been given to me.” A gift from whom? Again, who knows? It's a lovely perspective but a frustrating piece.

It certainly does appear that some kind of religious faith is at work in this story.

Did Gwen Hartley talk about the details of her faith, but this crucial content was omitted by the Post team? Did she talk about her faith in a general way and the reporter simply elected not to ask a follow-up question or two?

Perhaps the Hartley family is religiously unaffiliated, even when dealing with these kinds of crushing "theodicy" questions (as in, "Why did these bad things keep happening to good people?"). Perhaps she asked for the faith statements to remain vague?

There's no way for readers to know. That's kind of the point.

IMAGE: From the Hartley Hooligans website.

Categories: Main

More insight, less bias needed in media coverage of crosses on Texas police cars

6 hours 46 min ago

Some Texas newspaper reports on Gov. Greg Abbott supporting the display of crosses on police cars have been pretty sketchy.

Sketchy as in half there.

Sketchy as in incomplete.

Sketchy as in, well, you know?

Take The Dallas Morning News, for example:

AUSTIN -- After saying ‘In God We Trust’ could be displayed on cop cars last year, Gov. Greg Abbott has now also come out in support of displaying the cross on patrol vehicles.In a brief sent to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Abbott wrote that the crosses met the muster of separation of church and state.“Even under the U.S. Supreme Court’s expansive interpretation of the Establishment Clause’s limited and unambiguous text, the Court has never held that public officials are barred from acknowledging our religious heritage,” Abbott wrote in his brief. “To the contrary, the U.S. Supreme Court has long recognized the demographic and historical reality that Americans ‘are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.’”The brief is in response to some controversy surrounding the Brewster County Sheriff’s office, which recently allowed its officers to put bumper stickers of the cross on the back of patrol vehicles. Abbott has already spoken in support of the Brewster County Sheriff.“The Brewster County deputies’ crosses neither establish a religion nor threaten any person’s ability to worship God, or decline to worship God, in his own way,” Abbott wrote in his brief to Paxton.

From there, the Dallas newspaper provides scathing quotes from the Freedom from Religion Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union, both condemning the governor's brief.

And that's it.

There are no quotes from conservative legal organizations -- such as the Alliance Defending Freedom or the Liberty Counsel -- that might take a more sympathetic view of the governor's position.

There are no quotes from religious liberty scholars who might assess the governor's brief -- and the constitutionality of it -- from a more independent, less predictable perspective.

Is this a case of bias on the part of the Morning News? Or a case of an overworked reporter simply plugging in quotes emailed to him? Or a case of lazy journalism?

It would be pure speculation for me to attempt to answer.

But I will say that Houston Chronicle readers benefited from deeper — albeit not entirely perfect — reporting.

The Chronicle pressed an Abbott spokesman for additional insight:

An Abbott spokesman acknowledged that the cross has a "special significance to Christianity," but he said it also has "historical significance.""From the crosses at the American Cemetery in Normandy and Arlington National Cemetery, to the military medals and decorations this country bestows on its heroes, the cross is a symbol of service above self," spokesman John Wittman said.Asked whether Abbott would fight for the right of law enforcement officers to display symbols with "special significance" to Islam or Judaism, Wittman said only, "Governor Abbott has never backed down from defending religious liberties, and he will always fight to protect the freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution."

Moreover, the Houston newspaper contacted political and constitutional experts on the issue:

Legal experts in Texas and elsewhere said that the crosses on patrol cars likely would be found unconstitutional in court."The Supreme Court has never upheld a display a cross as a sort of generic display of heroism or respect for God. It just hasn't happened," said Ira "Chip" Lupu, a George Washington University law professor who studies the separation of church and state. "I mean, come on. You and I know that crosses are specific to Christianity."Lupu said the comparison to crosses at cemeteries is misleading because those symbols are on individual gravestones, signaling they are individual expressions, whereas symbols on government vehicles indicate a government position.The high court's decision to allow the 10 Commandments to be displayed outside the Texas Capitol also is different because it was in a large area with other monuments and had been there for decades, said Charles "Rocky" Rhodes of the South Texas College of Law.

The lesson: Readers benefit when reporters actually pick up the telephone and call people. Readers learn more when reporters actually call informed sources with a variety of viewpoints. It's called "journalism."

Image via

Categories: Main

Christian history flashback: What’s the legacy of the Jesus Movement 45 years later?

Sunday, February 7, 2016


[Referring to Time magazine's 1971 cover story on the youthful "Jesus Revolution"]  A lot has happened since then -- culturally, religiously, movement-wise -- and I’d be fascinated to see you revisit your journalistic and theological mind.


This interests Josh because his parents were members of Love Inn, which typified the youth-driven “Jesus Movement” of those days. It was a combination church, commune, Christian rock venue and traveling troupe, based in a barn near the aptly named Freeville, New York (population 500).

As a “Time” correspondent, the Religion Guy figured this revival, which was hiding in plain sight, was well worth a cover story, managed to convince reluctant editors to proceed, and did much of the field reporting including a visit to Love Inn. Arguably, that article -- by the Guy’s talented predecessor as “Time” religion writer, lay Catholic Mayo Mohs -- put the “Jesus freaks” permanently on the cultural map.

The following can only sketch mere strands of a complex phenomenon and offers as much theorizing as hard fact. For some of the history, the Guy is indebted to the valuable “Encyclopedia of Evangelicalism” by Randall Balmer of Dartmouth College.

Quick summary: The Jesus Movement developed pre-existing phenomena into a youth wing that energized and reshaped U.S. evangelical Protestantism as a whole. This occurred just as evangelicalism was clearly emerging as the largest segment of American religion while beginning in the mid-1960s moderate to liberal “mainline” Protestant groups began inexorable decline.

The Jesus Movement was related to and influenced by the “Charismatic Movement,” which first reached public notice around 1960. This wave took a loosened version of Pentecostal spirituality into “mainline” Protestant and Catholic settings and, especially, newer and wholly independent congregations, along with free-floating gatherings akin to the secular Woodstock (August, 1969).

Early “street Christians” clustered around hot spots such as the Living Room in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, the Christian World Liberation Front adjacent to the University of California at Berkeley, Seattle’s Jesus People Army, and His Place on the Sunset Strip (led by Arthur Blessitt who later evangelized his way across the nation pulling an outsize wheeled cross).

The first and foremost impact of the movement was upon the lives of individual teens and young adults who turned to robust Christian faith in those years. There’s no way of calculating the number of those affected by these scattered phenomena. Many were enabled to escape the bonds of substance abuse and other aspects of the youth culture’s underside. Some later popped up as ministers and lay leaders.

Love Inn is an example of a second aspect, a Jesus haven that eventually turned into a conventional congregation complete with a Christian school. Its founder in 1969 was “Scott” Ross, a noted rock D.J. who was “born again” in an era of drug-related deaths and other tragedies. One early Love Inn participant was star guitarist Phil Keaggy, one of many Christian rock and pop artists who were emerging.

The third result was groups that grew into megachurches.

Continue reading "What’s the Jesus Movement’s impact 45 years later?", by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Weekend think piece: The 'Passion' that looms over the historic Rome-Moscow meeting

Saturday, February 6, 2016

First things first: Click play on the above YouTube. Now begin reading.

As you would expect, I have received quite a bit of email during the past 24 hours linked to my GetReligion post -- "What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq" -- about the mainstream media coverage of the stunning announcement of a Feb. 12 meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, the leader of the Orthodox Church of All Russia.

As you would expect, much of the press coverage has stressed what this all means, from a Roman Catholic and Western perspective.

This is understandable, since there are 1.2 billion Catholics in the world and Francis is the brightest star in the religion-news firmament at the moment. People who know their history, however, know that this meeting is also rooted in the life and work of Saint Pope John Paul II, who grew up in a Polish Catholic culture that shares so much with the churches of the East, spiritually and culturally.

I updated my piece yesterday to point readers toward a fine Crux think piece by the omnipresent (yes, I'll keep using that word) John L. Allen, Jr. Let me do that once again. Read it all, please. Near the end, there is this interesting comment concerning Pope Francis:

... His foreign policy priorities since his election have been largely congenial to Russia’s perceived interests. In September 2013, he joined forces with Vladimir Putin in successfully heading off a proposed Western military offensive in Syria to bring down the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.Since then, Francis and Putin have met in the Vatican and found common ground on several matters, including the protection of Christians in the Middle East and the growing reemergence of Cuba in the community of nations.

This morning, my email contained another essay by a Catholic scribe that I stress is essential reading for those starting a research folder to prepare to cover the meeting in Havana. This is from Inside the Vatican and it is another eLetter from commentator Robert Moynihan.

This piece is simply packed with amazing details about events -- some completely overlooked by the mainstream media -- that have almost certainly, one after another, contributed to the logic of the Cuba meeting between Francis and Kirill.

Yes, there is also a reason that the YouTube at the top of this post links to a performance of the "St. Matthew Passion" by the Russian composer Hilarion Alfeyev. You see, this composer is also known as Metropolitan Hilarion and he is the Russian church's top ecumenical officer, a man of many languages and talents who has been at the heart of the contacts between Rome and Moscow FOR YEARS. He is also the Orthodox leader who, as I noted yesterday, told Reuters that the primary public purpose of the Cuba meetings will be to call attention to the continuing genocide of Christians in Iraq and Syria -- a cause of special importance to all Orthodox Christians, and also to Rome.

Why the "St. Matthew Passion"? Keep reading, because it shows up in the Moynihan essay.

But first, let me note that he begins with this amazing and symbolic quote:

“Thus, in full awareness and at the beginning of his ministry in the Church of Rome that Peter bathed with his blood, the current successor assumes as his primary commitment that of working tirelessly towards the reconstruction of the full and visible unity of all Christ’s followers. This is his ambition and compelling duty. He is aware that to do so, expressions of good feelings are not enough. Concrete gestures are required to penetrate souls and move consciences, encouraging everyone to that interior conversion which is the basis for all progress on the road of ecumenism.“Theological dialogue is necessary. A profound examination of the historical reasons behind past choices is also indispensable. But even more urgent is that ‘purification of memory,’ which was so often evoked by John Paul II, and which alone can dispose souls to welcome the full truth of Christ. It is before Him, supreme Judge of all living things, that each of us must stand, in the awareness that one day we must explain to Him what we did and what we did not do for the great good that is the full and visible unity of all His disciples.”

Why said that? No, this is not from Pope Francis. The quote is from the first sermon given by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI on the day following his election as pope in 2005.

So why is this Cuba meeting so important? Moynihan offers this punchy list:

-- Such a meeting has never occurred before.-- Because it is unprecedented, it is of world-historical importance.-- It is of importance for the history of the Church, that is, for the history of the Christian faith. It is also, therefore, important for salvation history.-- Finally, it is important for the history of Western culture, and therefore for the history of the world.

There is quite a bit of history in this piece, as in the Allen essay, about the issues that separate Rome and Moscow (as well as Rome and all the Orthodox churches, in general).

That is important, if familiar, material. However, let me stress -- since I am an Orthodox believer (and choir member) -- that Moynihan stunned me with a long list of relatively recent CULTURAL contacts between Rome and Moscow, most of them musical. Here is the start of his list:

(a) A key moment in this process was the decision of Pope John Paul II, in the last months of his life, to return to the Russians the much-revered Russian icon known as The Icon of the Blessed Mother of Kazan, a “wonder-working” icon which is known popularly in Russia as “the Protection of Russia.”The icon returned to Russia on August 28, 2004, and is now in the Cathedral of Kazan.(b) Another key moment came in Rome on March 29, 2007, when a Russian orchestra and choir presented The Passion According to St. Matthew, composed by the Russian Orthodox Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, who has now become the “foreign minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church (our magazine helped to organize that concert, which took place in the Auditorium on via della Conciliazione).(c) Another key moment came on December 17, 2007, when a second composition by Hilarion, called Christmas Oratorio, was presented in Washington D.C. in the largest Catholic Church in the United States, the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, to a standing-room only audience.At the same time, a moving exhibit on “The Spiritual Renewal of Russia,” which included a wooden icon of Mary pierced by bullet holes, was offered in the crypt of the basilica (our magazine also helped to organize that concert and exhibit).

The list goes on.

Readers: Please pause for a moment and ponder how important liturgical music and art is to the Russian soul.

Now think for a second about the symbolic nature of an Orthodox archbishop composing a setting of the St. Matthew Passion and seeing it performed in Rome. Many scholars consider the St. Matthew Passion by J.S. Bach to be one of the greatest achievements in all of Western art and culture.

Now place this same Orthodox archbishop at the heart of years of dialogue between Moscow and the Vatican. I would imagine that Metropolitan Hilarion will be one of the primary authors of the statement that will be signed by Francis and Kirill in Cuba.

Click PLAY on that YouTube at the top of this post and keep reading.

Moynihan reaches the crucial, timely, news hook for all of this:

Why now?It is not entirely clear why the meeting is being held precisely now, in Cuba, and announced publicly only a week before it takes place.Both leaders are clearly concerned about the dramatic turn of events now occurring in Syria, and have publicly lamented and warned about the dangers of a wider war. Since August, Russian troops have been directly engaged in Syria, in a battle against the forces of ISIS seeking to overthrow the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad.Recently, the events in Syria have taken on an even more dangerous complexion.As of this writing, there are unconfirmed reports that thousands of Turkish troops are massing on the Syrian border in what seems to be a prelude to an incursion. Since Russia is now in Syria, defending the Assad regime, such an incursion might lead to Russian casualties, with the possibility of igniting a conflict between Russia and Turkey.Since Turkey is a member of NATO, such a conflict would have the potential of growing wider.Pope Francis on several occasions has alluded to the danger of a “Third World War” developing from the various conflicts now occurring in the Middle East, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.It seems possible that, in this context, Francis and Kirill both desire to have a face-to-face talk, to exchange views and information without any intermediary. It is well-known that Kirill is close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has openly declared his support of Russian Orthodoxy in post-Soviet Russia.In this context, the meeting takes on the significance of a possible effort by two religious leaders to forestall the eruption of a wider war in the Middle East, which could spread outside of the Middle East.And the choice of Cuba for the meeting -- the place where a conflict between the West and the Soviet Union almost erupted in 1962 at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis -- seems, in this context, fitting.

Let the music play. In a way, you are listening to the soundtrack for the drama behind these talks. The Moynihan essay is must reading. Please pass this on.

FIRST PHOTO: Metropolitan Hilarion and Pope Benedict XVI.

Categories: Main

Facing the Sexual Revolution's impact, even among 'active' members of red-pew flocks

Friday, February 5, 2016

It happens to journalists every now and then. You are interviewing a source and suddenly this person says something strange and specific that completely changes how you see an issue that you are covering.

That happened to me back in the early 1990s when I was covering the very first events linked to the "True Love Waits" movement to support young people who wanted help in "saving sex for marriage." This happened so long ago that I don't have a digital copy of my "On Religion" column on this topic stored anywhere on line.

Anyway, I realize that for many people the whole "True Love Waits" thing was either a joke or an idealistic attempt to ask young people to do the impossible in modern American culture. But put that issue aside for a moment, because that isn't the angle of this issue that knocked me out in that interview long ago. (Yes, I have written about this before here at GetReligion.)

If you want to understand the background for this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), I want you to think about something else.

What fascinated me was that, according to key "True Love Waits" leaders, they didn't struggle to find young people who wanted to take vows and join the program. What surprised them was that many church leaders were hesitating to get on board because of behind-the-scenes opposition from ADULTS in their congregations.

The problem was that pastors were afraid to offend a few, or even many, adults in their churches -- even deacons -- because of the sexual complications in many lives and marriages, including sins that shattered marriages and homes. Key parents didn't want to stand beside their teens and take the program's vows.

It was the old plank-in-the-eye issue. It was easier to keep preaching about Hollywood and homosexuality and other "safe" topics.

Now, roughly a quarter of a century later, the Barna Group has come out with yet another survey -- "What Americans Believe About Sex" -- noting the degree to which issues in sexual morality are dividing the generations in modern America and causing increased tensions between believers and secular citizens.

At this point, that is pretty familiar material in the headlines. Can you say "Pew Forum" and the "nones"? I thought so.

No, the numbers that hit me in this study were found deep in the spreadsheets, over in the columns noting the degree to which religious believers -- even in "red" or conservative pews --  are now confused or divided when discussing basic issues in moral theology.

In this week's "On Religion" column, I focused quite a bit of attention on one particular question. So, how would active members of conservative Protestant churches respond if asked to react to this statement: "As long as it's between consenting adults, any kind of sex is fine."

If this were a conservative or nondenominational Protestant church, the active, "practicing" members would be sharply divided, according to a new Barna Group survey. Nearly half -- 46 percent -- would affirm this live-and-let-live approach to sex outside of marriage, while 40 percent would disagree "strongly" and 12 percent "somewhat."These are the active members, not the people who occasionally visit the pews.

Yes, we are talking about conservative churches. I asked, specifically, if this was the data niche that included Southern Baptist churches, nondenominational Protestant megachurches, the Assemblies of God, etc. Yes, it's that crowd and it's split pretty much 50-50 on that "anything goes" question.

Want some other results on that issue?

The Barna team found that "practicing" Catholics were as divided as conservative Protestants, with 24 percent agreeing "strongly" and 23 percent agreeing "somewhat" that "any kind of sex is fine" between consenting adults of whatever gender. Meanwhile, 24 percent of these Catholics disagreed "somewhat" and 28 percent disagreed "strongly."A similar division -- close to 50-50 -- was seen among active members in liberal, or "mainline," Protestant denominations.

Now, how active are these "active" members? Is there a difference between people who are in the pews on a regular basis on Sunday mornings and members who are there day after day, including religious education projects, volunteer work, weekday prayer services, house-church support groups, etc.? Does it make a difference if children are home-schooled or attend religious schools? Are there differences between Catholics who go to confession and those who do not?

These are questions for future surveys. But for now, it's time for religious leaders to spend a bit more time focusing on the revolution inside their own flocks. Is this a subject that is too hot to touch? Do clergy simply have to leave this elephant sitting out there in the pews?

Maybe journalists need to look for the Woodstock DNA in red pews, as well as charting what is happening in the culture as a whole. Maybe all bets are off.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Of Catholics, RNS and Zika virus: Questions of original reporting

Friday, February 5, 2016

Like mosquitos that carry the disease, a story by the Religion News Service buzzes with Catholic concerns over how to address the Zika outbreak currently coursing through Latin America. The article strains mightily to provide a many-sided view of the matter, but not always successfully, and not always originally.

The headliner is a warning this week by Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras not to use abortion in the fight against the virus.   As RNS says, Zika is a prime suspect in microcephaly, in which children are born with small heads and brains. If a pregnant woman is bitten by a mosquito that's carrying the virus, children may be born with the defect.

Apparently, Maradiaga read someone recommending so-called "therapeutic abortion," or terminating a pregnancy for risk of abnormalities like microcephaly. That freaked him, according to RNS:

"We should never talk about ‘therapeutic’ abortion," the cardinal said in his homily, according to Honduran media reports."Therapeutic abortion doesn’t exist," he said. "Therapeutic means curing, and abortion cures nothing. It takes innocent lives."

It hasn't come to that yet, but RNS notes that the World Health Organization declared an international public health emergency. And some Latin American officials have recommended women there to delay pregnancy for up to two years.

RNS is right to highlight Maradiaga's words; as it says, he is a top adviser to Pope Francis as well as chief shepherd of Honduras. It could have added that he was also considered a papabile, or papal candidate, in 2005 and 2013. That's especially rarefied atmosphere.

But the cardinal's comments were just the first few paragraphs of this article -- what we in journalism call a shirttail lede -- for a more indepth treatment:

The advice to delay pregnancy raises questions for Catholics about using artificial birth control, which is against church teaching except in certain circumstances. Because discerning those circumstances is like threading "a fine theological needle," as one theologian told CNN, the bishops in many countries have so far largely avoided making blanket statements on the issue.The question of aborting fetuses with abnormalities, however, takes the issue to another level.Abortion rights supporters have been using the crisis as an argument for liberalizing the region’s generally strict abortion laws, and that is putting pressure on church leaders to remind the flock that direct abortion is never acceptable.

I would have faulted the labeling of abortion advocates "rights supporters" -- a common media practice of assigning white and black hats -- but RNS then labels as prolife the Catholic Bishops Conference of Colombia. That term seldom appears in mainstream media, unless it's imprisoned in sarcasm quotes. So, thumbs up for RNS.

This article suggests that the Catholic Church has a dilemma in the question of abortion and congenital illness. On the one hand, the bishops are reluctant to make blanket statements about the issues. On the other, they may feel they must speak out when some people are calling to abort children for birth defects. Clearly, Maradiaga himself chose to land on one side of the matter.

The report briefly acknowledges fast-growing Latin evangelical and Pentecostal churches. It observes that while they don’t oppose all birth control, they stand with the Catholic Church in opposing abortion; but it doesn't substantiate this. It quotes a prolife doctor, Scott James, in a Southern Baptist publication, but doesn't say how influential he may be with Latin pastors.

This article, in fact, was researched the way many stories are done nowadays: through websites, public statements and scraps of other media. I'm not sure I see a single fact or quote here that comes from original reporting. Even the contextual sections are borrowed, though with acknowledgment.

That part about the reticence of South American bishops to make blanket statements? That's from America, a Jesuit magazine in New York. And that unnamed theologian in the RNS story? Quoted from a CNN story on the church and the Zika outbreak. But CNN calls him an assistant professor of history and American culture at the University of Michigan, and an expert on Latin American religious culture -- not a theologian. So does the university.

You can get a fuller, more original treatment of the church and Zika with CNN's report itself. It quotes not only Ramirez but two CNN medical correspondents and three Catholic thinkers -- a bioethicist, a prolife priest and a real theologian.

Finally -- and this may sound strange in a conservative blog like GetReligion -- the RNS story quotes no one who favors therapeutic abortion. Yes, it has Maradiaga quoting some "medical professional." Who was it? Where did he/she write?  The cardinal's office probably could furnished that.

We should have gotten at least a sense of the arguments on the other side to evaluate them for ourselves. As I've said before, it's only a controversy when it has at least two sides.

So, kudos to RNS for an overall view of a complex issue: how the Catholic Church tries to deal with an illness while upholding reverence for life. But this report should have been a bit more original. Otherwise, it starts to resemble one of those mosquitos -- flitting and alighting, drawing from one host or another.


Categories: Main

What brings Rome and Moscow together at last? Suffering churches in Syria, Iraq (updated)

Friday, February 5, 2016

It is certainly the most important story of the day for the world's Eastern Orthodox Christians. Yes, even bigger than the announcement -- with the lengthy fast (no meat, no dairy) of Great Lent approaching -- that Ben & Jerry's is poised to begin selling vegan ice cream.

I am referring to the announcement of a meeting between Pope Francis and Patriarch Kirill, the leader of the Orthodox Church in Russia.

Any meeting between the pope and the patriarch of all Russia would be historic, simply because the shepherds of Rome and Moscow have never met before. Hold that thought, because we will come back to it.

The big question, of course, is: Why are they meeting? What finally pushed the button to ease the tensions enough between these two churches for their leaders to meet?

In terms of the early news coverage, the answer depends on whether you are one of the few news consumers who will have a chance to read the Reuters report, being circulated by Religion News Service, or one of the many who see the Associated Press story that is, I believe, deeply flawed. Alas, the majority of news consumers will probably see a shortened version of the AP report and will be totally in the dark about the primary purpose of this historic meeting.

So here is the top of the Reuters report:

MOSCOW -- The patriarch of Russia’s Orthodox Church will take part in an historic first meeting with the Roman Catholic pontiff on Feb. 12 because of the need for a joint response to the persecution of Christians in the Middle East, the Orthodox Church said.Senior Orthodox cleric Metropolitan Hilarion said that long-standing differences between the two churches remain, most notably a row over the status of the Uniate Church, in Ukraine. But he said these differences were being put aside so that Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis could come together over persecution of Christians.This issue will be the central item on the agenda for their meeting, in Havana, Cuba, the cleric said.

If you follow ecumenical news, you know that Metropolitan Hilarion is the point man for this work in Russia and previously met with Pope Benedict XVI (photo above) and later with Francis. Based on a joint press statement, it is clear that Francis and Kirill will sign some kind of joint statement of good will.

Their meeting will take place in Cuba, where the Pope will make a stop on his way to Mexico, and where the Patriarch will be on an official visit. It will include a personal conversation at Havana’s José Martí International Airport, and will conclude with the signing of a joint declaration.

In light of the horrible trends in the Middle East, a matter of great concern to Catholics and all the Orthodox churches, it sounds like some kind of specific statement on the persecution of Christians is in the works. It would be major news if the statement addresses religious freedom -- period.

So now, what did the AP report say was the goal of this meeting?

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis and the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will meet in Cuba next week in a historic step to heal the 1,000-year-old schism that divided Christianity between East and West, both churches announced Friday.The Feb. 12 meeting between Francis and Patriarch Kirill will be the first ever between the leaders of the Catholic Church and the Russian Orthodox Churches, which is the largest in Orthodoxy.

Well now, it is certainly true that any meeting between Rome and Moscow is a good sign on the ecumenical front and, thus, represents some progress toward healing the great schism of 1054. Some general expression of hope for unity may even make it into that joint declaration to be signed in Cuba.

But is that WHY this meeting is taking place? Is that the news?

Look at it this way. If you worked in the White House, wouldn't you think that the main thrust of this meeting will have something to do with what leaders in Moscow and Rome think needs to be done to protect the battered, bloodied churches of Syria and Iraq?

Now, way down, the AP report does mention this angle in some background material:

The two churches split during the Great Schism of 1054 and have remained estranged over a host of issues, including the primacy of the pope and Russian Orthodox accusations that the Catholic Church is poaching converts in former Soviet lands.Those tensions have prevented previous popes from ever meeting with the Russian patriarch, even though the Vatican has long insisted that it was merely ministering to tiny Catholic communities in largely Orthodox lands.The persecution of Christians -- Catholic and Orthodox -- in the Middle East and Africa, however, has had the effect of bringing the two churches closer together. Both the Vatican and the Orthodox Church have been outspoken in denouncing attacks on Christians and the destruction of Christian monuments, particularly in Syria.

There is another problem in that passage. It is certainly true that the 1054 schism was between "two churches." But that wording is, in this case, a bit confusing. The schism was not between Rome and Moscow. It was between the Catholic Church and all of the Orthodox churches, including the massive Russian church.

As the AP report notes:

The Vatican has long nurtured ties with the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who is considered "first among equals" within the Orthodox Church. Starting with Pope Paul VI, various popes have called upon the Ecumenical Patriarch in hopes of bridging closer ties with the Orthodox faithful.But the Russian Orthodox Church, which is the largest church in Orthodoxy and the most powerful, has always kept its distance from Rome. Joint theological commissions have met over the years and the Russian church's foreign minister has made periodic visits to Rome, but a pope-patriarch meeting has never been possible until now.

So we have come full circle, back to the crucial point that the Reuters team got into the lede and the AP team did not.

Why now? What world events made this historic meeting possible?

Behind closed doors, the pope and the patriarch will almost certainly talk about Ukraine and other issues. They may talk about the remaining doctrinal barriers that prevent shared Communion, in every sense of that word, between the Orthodox and Catholics.

But all signs are that they are meeting because, to be blunt, Christians have few if any safe havens right now in the lands in which they have lived and worshiped since the birth of Christianity. What happens if Damascus falls to ISIS or even to the American-backed "moderate" forces that have been killing and kidnapping Christians and members of other religious minorities at a slower rate than ISIS?

Stay tuned to see what is in the joint declaration in Cuba. I imagine that U.S. State Department leaders will be reading it carefully.

UPDATE: As one would expect, John L. Allen, Jr., of Crux has posted a lengthy and essential analysis of this development (with an heavy emphasis, of course, on the Catholic perspective). Where is the Iraq-Syria angle played? At the end, as the last card in a length drama leading to this news.

FIRST IMAGE: Pope Francis meets with Metropolitan Hilarion. The large image, as mentioned in text, is from an earlier meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and Hilarion.

Categories: Main

Huffington Post losing its religion: What's up as key staffers leave and news org drops RNS?

Friday, February 5, 2016

I never know quite what to make of the Huffington Post.

Is it a news publication? An advocacy commentary site? A combination of the two? This is a topic members of the GetReligion team have been debating for years, since our focus here is on mainstream news material.

On the one hand, the online-only news organization won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for "Beyond the Battlefield," a 10-part series on the lives of severely wounded veterans and their families. Clearly, the HuffPost runs some serious news material.

On the other hand, regardless of what I think about Donald Trump, I find it difficult to take seriously the journalism of a media outlet that appends this note to its coverage of the Republican presidential candidate:

Note to our readers: Donald Trump is a serial liarrampant xenophoberacistbirther and bully who has repeatedly pledged to ban all Muslims -- 1.6 billion members of an entire religion -- from entering the U.S.

I bring up the HuffPost because of recent signs the website may be losing its religion. Literally.

Jerome Socolovsky, editor in chief of Religion News Service, confirmed to GetReligion that the news organization dropped its subscription to the wire service:

After being an RNS subscriber since 2012, we were sad to hear the Huffington Post will no longer carry the RNS wire. 

Meanwhile, Jaweed Kaleem, the award-winning senior religion reporter who serves as a vice president of the Religion Newswriters Association, confirmed to GetReligion that he has left the HuffPost:

Yes, I have left and am pursuing independent projects. I'm sure the talented staff there will continue to produce good work.

Kaleem's departure comes on the heels of Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, executive and founding editor of HuffPost Religion, leaving a few months ago to become senior vice president of public engagement at Auburn Seminary in New York. 

What do these recent developments mean to the future of the Godbeat at the HuffPost? I sent an email to the organization's media relations team this week. I have not received a response. If (and when) I do, I'll update this post.

A quick check of the HuffPost's job page reveals no openings for religion writers.

However, the website is looking for a "sleep reporter":

This reporter will have a firm grasp of all that’s happening in the scientific field of sleep studies, a newsy eye for how sleep (and sleep-deprivation) influences major stories, and an appreciation of the way sleep unlocks new possibilities for us -- as individuals and as a society -- when we embrace it and give it the respect it deserves.

What about the Godbeat? Will the HuffPost continue to embrace it and give it the respect it deserves?

Stay tuned.

Inset image by Gil C, via

Categories: Main

Young, gay Mormons and suicide: The Salt Lake Tribune tries to do the real numbers

Thursday, February 4, 2016

It was one of the odder headlines I’ve seen lately: "Suicide fears, if not actual suicides, rise in wake of Mormon same-sex policy."

Underneath is a narrative of how last fall’s announcement of a revised policy on membership requirements for gay Mormons may have vastly increased Utah suicides.

After seven paragraphs came the whopper: The premise behind the story has no basis in fact. But it sounded true. It may still be true. Lots of observers think it's true.

We've heard this before: Truthiness strikes again. We can debate the facts later.

It’s not the way I would have written such a piece, but it does draw you in. You almost have to read the entire overture up to the clincher paragraph to see how it is done. Here’s how it starts:

The fears were there right from the start -- that the LDS Church's new policy on same-sex couples would make gay Mormons feel more judged, more marginalized, more misunderstood and that more of them would take their own lives.Since early November -- when the edict labeling gay LDS couples as "apostates" and denying their children baptism until age 18 took hold -- social media sites have been buzzing with tales of loss, depression and death. Therapists have seen an uptick in clients who reported suicidal thoughts. Activists have been bombarded with grief-stricken family members seeking comfort and counsel.Wendy Williams Montgomery, an Arizona-based Mormon mom with a gay son, says she began receiving email or Facebook messages from bereaved families nearly daily, mourning a loved one's suicide.From the policy's onset through the end of 2015, Montgomery, a leader of the Mama Dragons support group for the families of gay Latter-day Saints, says she had counted 26 suicides of young LGBT Mormons in Utah -- 23 males, one female and two transgender individuals -- between ages 14 and 20. She tallied another six in other states -- though none of the reported deaths could be specifically tied to the policy.Montgomery's statistics were shared at a recent meeting in Los Angeles of Affirmation, a support group for gay Mormons."The number of suicides reported to Wendy Montgomery is shocking," says John Gustav-Wrathall, Affirmation's newly installed president. "I've never seen anything like it in the history of my involvement with the organization."Trouble is, the number far exceeds the suicide figures collected by the Utah Department of Health. Preliminary figures for November and December show 10 suicides in the Beehive State for people ages 14 to 20, with two more cases "undetermined."

Then the reporter quotes a state health department spokesperson as saying they monitor causes of death and had there been any tie-in with the LDS policy on homosexuals, the department would have noticed it. Suicide records are not broken down by religion or sexual orientation. Still, Montgomery’s figures were very dramatically off.

This article, which had 1,095 comments last I looked, illustrates a major dilemma in journalism.

What happens when a reporter is hearing a lot of talk about certain trends on, say, Facebook, but can’t find the data to support what a lot of people are saying must be true. A subhead says therapists are hearing from more gay patients with suicidal thoughts but only one therapist -- in Provo -- goes on the record to say this is happening in her practice.

Then an ethics professor from Utah Valley University cautions against using purported gay suicides as a way of “weaponizing tragedies in a culture war.” So you do hear from both sides in this report, although the eight paragraphs at the end from an anonymous mother whose gay son committed suicide last month certainly weights the piece in one direction.

I’m mystified as to why we had to wait until well into the story to find out that Montgomery's claims can’t be substantiated. Her evidence is anecdotal: She's heard from families who've called her to say their son or daughter committed suicide because of the new policies that, among other things, disallow children of gay parents from being baptized until they are 18. And if they're baptized, they must disavow their parents' lifestyle. The fact that the her claims can't be independently verified hasn't stopped her from making them.

The lack of proof didn't matter to advocacy publications such as the Advocate, which ran with Montgomery’s claims nevertheless. So did Teen Vogue. They went with a story they believed to be true because, logically, it must be true, right?

The Deseret News, which tends to put the official Latter-day Saints point of view high up, also printed a long piece about the same topic: They dug up the inconvenient fact that Utah suicides actually went down in the last two months of 2015 compared to final months of 2014. But like the Trib story, it thrashes about a bit, because the centerpiece (Montgomery’s claims) cannot be proved.

We've all heard the old journalism bromide: Even if your mother says she loves you, check it out. It's easy for reporters to be skeptical about stories they personally don't agree with. Look at how most media treated the Planned Parenthood videos. The challenge is to apply equal skepticism to stories you think must be true.

The photo of Wendy Williams Montgomery and her family is from the site.

Categories: Main

Elite newsrooms avoid 'liberal' issues, as Obama visits mosque with an interesting past

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Present Barack Obama's visit to the Islamic Society of Baltimore, located in the old Catonsville suburb, was an event that was both important and symbolic for a number of reasons.

For starters, violence linked to the rise of the Islamic State, as well as acts of terrorism inspired by radicalized forms of Islam, have become a bloody normality in world headlines during the years of the Obama presidency. President Obama has attempted to maintain what his supporters argue is a graceful, calm stance on these trends in an attempt to avoid pouring gasoline on the flames. His critics insist that he has chosen blindness, for motives that remain unclear.

Oh, and then there are those bizarre numbers that keep showing up in polls whenever Americans are asked if they believe Obama is, in fact, a Muslim (despite his adult conversion into a liberal, oldline Protestant band of faith).

Thus, the speech at the Baltimore-area mosque received major coverage, as it should. Most of the coverage did a good job of covering, in glowing terms, the content of the Obama message (full text here). What puzzled me, however, was the lack of attention focused on the location. This left me -- as usual -- puzzled about current trends in "liberal" and "conservative" journalism. Hold that thought.

This passage in The Washington Post report captured the mainstream media tone:

The historic 45-minute speech at a large, suburban Baltimore mosque was attended by some of the country’s most prominent Muslims. In what appeared to be a counter to the rise in Islamophobia, Obama celebrated the long history of Muslim achievement in American life from sports to architecture and described Muslims as Cub Scouts, soldiers and parents, pointing out the mother of the pre-med college student who introduced him at the podium.“There are voices who are constantly claiming you have to choose between your identities…. Do not believe them…. You fit in here. Right here. You’re right where you belong. You’re part of America, too,” Obama said, his volume rising as he said he was speaking in particular at that moment to young Muslim Americans. “You’re not Muslim or American, you’re Muslim and American. And don’t grow cynical.”While Obama has many times, including in the last few months, spoken out against anti-Muslim rhetoric, Wednesday’s visit was the longest and most direct such effort -- an intimate conversation between a faith community and a president who has at times seemed to put himself at arm’s length.

Note that phrase stating that the event drew "some of the country’s most prominent Muslims." Add that fact to the recent history of this mosque and reporters faced some interesting decisions on what issues to discuss and what to avoid discussing.

At the very end of the long piece, the Post team added this (leaning, strangely, on The Baltimore Sun as its authoritative source):

The community at the Islamic Society of Baltimore is diverse but consists predominantly of immigrants from Pakistan, India and Bangladesh and their families. The society has its roots in the small group that began meeting on the Johns Hopkins campus to pray, discuss scripture and study Arabic.The Sun ... noted that since Saturday there has been a low buzz about a former longtime imam, Mohamed Adam El Sheikh. In 2004, after he left the Islamic Society, he was quoted as saying that suicide bombings might be acceptable in extreme circumstances. He told the Sun on Tuesday that he had spoken out “repeatedly” since that time against religious extremism and terrorism -- a view he expressed to the Sun in 1985, when he was an imam there.

The coverage in The New York Times included a similar short, glancing passage -- focusing on an issue linked to Israel. It focused on a criticism of the mosque from a source that was sure to be controversial, for many reasons, among Times readers.

Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, one of the country’s oldest and largest pro-Israel organizations, denounced Mr. Obama for visiting a mosque whose leaders, Mr. Klein said, have among other issues criticized Israeli military actions. “Going to such a mosque only encourages radical Muslims to harm Americans,” Mr. Klein said.White House and Islamic Society of Baltimore officials did not respond to Mr. Klein’s criticism. Ibrahim Hooper, a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that “any mosque would have been attacked similarly.”

Now, the assumption is that elite newsrooms such as those at the Post and Times are highly interested, when it comes to religion news, with collisions between ancient doctrines and modern trends related to moral and cultural issues -- especially anything tied to gender and sex. In other words, as former Times editor Bill Keller once noted (click here for source of the GetReligion "Kellerism" term). They tend to be urbane, progressive, socially liberal places.

But in this case, this "liberal" wing of the press was not interested in these kinds of topics. However, check out the opening of the Obama-at-the-mosque story in The Daily Caller.

President Obama met behind closed doors on Wednesday with 13 Muslim leaders at a Baltimore mosque with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood. And, according to a White House pool report, one of the participants is the Islamic Society of Baltimore’s anti-gay resident scholar, Imam Yaseen Shaikh. ...Introduced by ISB’s president, Muhammad Jameel, who in 2014 accused Israel of engaging in “genocide” against Palestine, praised the mosque for its inter-faith outreach efforts. He also praised the mosque’s school, “where teachers open young minds.”But ISB’s schools, the Al-Rahma School and Qur’an Academy, are led by Imam Shaikh, a British citizen who formerly served as imam in Plano, Tex., who has said that Islam is adamantly opposed to homosexuality.A 2013 YouTube video uncovered by The Daily Caller also shows Shaikh lamenting that gay rights activists have “hijacked” the political system to further their agenda.

The DC is, of course, a website offering a mixture of news and conservative commentary. In this case, the "conservative" site was more interested in the gay-rights angle of this story then several elite, "liberal" news organizations.

That is interesting, to say the least. Imagine if Obama had spoken at, let's say, an African-American evangelical megachurch that has consistently opposed gay marriage and argued that sex outside of marriage is sin. Would this angle have been noted in coverage by the Times and the Post? What if, oh, Sen. Marco Rubio spoke in such a church?

The Daily Caller also listed some other facts about this mosque that would, if covered in a mainstream publication, ignite strong debate worthy of informed coverage.

The mosque’s imam for much of the 1980s and 1990s also has close ties to extremists and terrorist groups. Mohammed Adam el-Sheikh was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, his home country, in the 1970s. He also co-founded the Muslim American Society, which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood.While in Baltimore, el-Sheikh served as a regional director at the Islamic American Relief Agency, which the Treasury Department designated as a terrorist organization in 2004. The organization’s African arm reportedly funneled money to al-Qaeda, Osama bin Laden and other terrorists.After leaving ISB in 2003, el-Sheikh served as imam at Dar al-Hijrah in Falls Church, Va. That mosque has numerous links to terrorists and terror sympathizers. Before el-Sheikh’s tenure, Dar al-Hijrah’s imam was Anwar al-Awlaki, the al-Qaeda recruiter killed in a U.S. drone strike in Yemen in 2011.In 2004, el-Sheikh defended Hamas’ use of suicide bombers against Israelis.

So, by stressing the gay-rights angle, was the Caller -- which tends to be rather libertarian on social issues -- leaning to the "left" or to the "right"?

Let's turn that question around. With their silence on issues of sex and gender at this mosque, were the Post and Times teams leaning "left" or "right"? Perhaps, in this case, the need to avoid information that might cast a shadow on Obama's triumph trumped other concerns?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Happy 12th Birthday, GetReligion

Thursday, February 4, 2016

So we have reached the early days of February, once again.

My name remains on the masthead as GetReligion begins its 12th year of publication, but that is testimony more to Terry Mattingly’s deep loyalty to his friends and religion-beat colleagues than to anything I have done for several years.

My helping Terry launch GetReligion was a happy convergence of free time, basic comfort with the tools of weblogs, and an abiding love for the Godbeat. We knew that this was an important topic.

Terry and I became friends in the 1990s, when we both lived in Colorado, and working on GetReligion was the first chance I had to work with him. Because I have been drawn, moth-like, to the perpetual opera that is the Anglican Communion (which kept affecting my job status in journalism), I have drifted in and out of GetReligion’s orbit of writers.

I have enjoyed learning about the strengths and challenges of the weblog platforms behind GetReligion. We started on TypePad, which offered a certain elegance of design. At the encouragement of our friends and former hosts at (now, we switched to the free and versatile version of WordPress. Now GetReligion publishes through SquareSpace, thanks to the Herculean efforts of Loosely Related. I expect GetReligion’s affiliation with The King’s College will give us a solid foundation in the years ahead.

What I have enjoyed most about GetReligion is watching its sauntering parade of contributors.

As the editor, Terry strikes a balance between hiring longtime reporters and emerging younger talents. At the moment, the team leans toward veterans -- with a combined total of roughly 180 years of experience on the beat. The news and commentary produced by many of this site's alumni speaks for itself.

I know from experience that Terry is deliberate and thorough each time he invites a new person to join the team. It’s like watching a baseball manager in action. What has united us all, across 12 years, is a fierce commitment to the Godbeat and balanced, accurate journalism that seeks out voices on both sides of complicated stories.

Some of us are old enough to remember the episode of the sitcom "Lou Grant" in which the grumpy title character -- city editor of The Los Angeles Tribune -- rid himself of Mel Cavanaugh, a newsroom hanger-on, by threatening to make him the religion editor. However, we also remember a longer storyline, in which the Trib hired Marcus Prescott (played by the late great Meshach Taylor), an honest-to-God religion editor who knew and loved his beat.

Marcus Prescott embodied the time when many newspaper editors realized that a comprehensive, diverse news organization should pay attention to what people believe about faith and God, and how their beliefs affect the rest of their lives.

Some newspapers and magazines still understand that. Too many have jettisoned the Godbeat as they struggle to stay in business.

This gives me hope: there are hundreds of Prescotts out there, whether they write for newspapers, magazines or weblogs. GetReligion is here to cheer them along, and, yes, to keep asking the ubiquitous Mel Cavanaughs of this world why they still do not get it.

Categories: Main

Digital warfare: RNS and PBS report anti-jihadi campaigns on social media

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The real battlefront against ISIS and other terrorists isn’t the Middle East. It's on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media -- where jihadis are made and recruited. And two articles this week tell of a corps of new warriors familiar with the terrain.

The Religion News Service yesterday told how a West Point team won second place in a contest for most effective online presence against radical Islamist influences. The so-called Peer to Peer (P2P) competition, sponsored by Homeland Security, involved teams from several nations -- including one from a Pakistani college, which took first place.

Each team got $2,000 to spend on their entries, and they used the cash shrewdly, according to RNS:

The cadets, who used most of their cash on website development, said they had wondered how their project — designed to appeal to young people who might sympathize with terrorism — would fare in a contest co-sponsored by Homeland Security. They used the same hashtags often deployed by the Islamic State group on Twitter — #Syria, #IslamicState and #ParisAttacks — to give but a few examples.And they would anonymously insert themselves into online spaces that had little to do with terrorism, but where a lonely young person vulnerable to extremists might virtually hang out. “Our campaign uses the same strategies to compete for the same audience that the Islamic State is reaching out for,” said Cadet David Weinmann.

They wisely posted in Arabic and on Fridays, knowing many Muslims go online after weekly prayers at mosques. And the "consulted with psychologists to learn how certain colors on their website could evoke certain emotions in users — green because of its association with Islam, and black because terrorists tend to like it," RNS says.

RNS is less specific about the content the team loaded onto places like YouTube and Twitter, perhaps because it might have outed the project and killed it. The article also doesn't include URLs or screenshots of their work.

The report does say that the team never denounces jihad or warns about the dangers of ISIS. Instead, they try to start subtle conversations with youths who seem drawn to radicalism: "Once on the cadets’ social media platforms, users are gently pushed toward a website — now live but still developing — which features moderate Muslim voices talking about Islam as a religion of peace."

One topic I would have liked to read more was how the cadets started their project by interviewing Muslim fellow students "to deepen their knowledge of Islam." What did they ask? What surprised them? How did the answers help them tailor their approach?

Measuring success, of course, is hard. How do you count the people who didn’t join ISIS or shoot up public spaces? But RNS does second-best in counting hits: 900,000 users on Facebook in more than 25 countries in two months.

RNS even finds a touch of humor in how Twitter shut down the account after it received complaints (though it was restored after a phone call). It was "a sign the feed attracts people other than those who adamantly reject violent extremism," the report says.

As sharp as RNS was in spotting this story, it was a few days late: PBS Newshour reported it on Sunday.  The story, hosted by PBS' Bob Booker, broadens the scope to students and think tankers as well as West Point.

In some ways, PBS tells more crisply what the students are doing. It says the project aims not at hardcore radicals but at fence sitters, 18 to 40 years old, who may be vulnerable to the ISIS pitch. The cadets often use direct messaging to help them talk out their beliefs.

Booker even relates something that happened while he was at West Point:

CHRISTOPHER BOOKER: During our visit, the cadets said they received a Facebook message from someone they believed to be in the Middle East. Senior CJ Drew was one of the first to read it.CJ DREW: In this in this instance, we were reached out to by a person who had seen our page. And the first thing that came up to them was jihad.  And they looked like they were a fence-sitter or someone we consider to be vulnerable to targeting by ISIS, and they wanted more information and they wanted to engage us and tell us what jihad meant to them.

But the PBS report is less focused as it moves to the NYU project, dubbed “7 train stop” for a subway station in the ethnically diverse Queens borough. The supervisor, Professor Colette Mazzucelli, talks about the need to "integrate" immigrants into the "American narrative." But she doesn't say much about how it's done, except for providing a discussion website.

Roughly half the story, in fact, details the problem more than solutions. (Of course, the 1,700 transcript is much longer than the 1,000-word RNS piece.) One of the problems is that, according to Seamus Hughes of the State Department, American radicals gravitate toward "echo chamber" websites:

We look at about 300 accounts of Americans we believe to be ISIS supporters online, over a six-month period, and what we saw is they didn’t hear dissenting voices. They only heard what they wanted to hear. They were only pushing the propaganda that they believed in, so when you have people trying to interject themselves into the conversation, they were quickly pushed out.

If so, it suggests that nobody in West Point -- maybe no one in the P2P competition -- got to such people. PBS should asked about that.
Booker was alert enough mention the U.S.' previous "Think Again, Turn Away," campaign, an attempt to throw mud on ISIS through satire. Its coordinator, Alberto Fernandez, admits the campaign failed: "We were too extreme and too radical for government, but not extreme and radical enough for the challenge."

What's left? Still casting around, says Fernandez -- who has left the government for the Middle East Media Research Institute. He talks to PBS in terms of "turning the battleship around."

The main note of hope in both articles is apparently that a handful of dedicated young adults is taking new approaches in preventing people from going radical. My hope is that PBS and RNS keep on this story.


Categories: Main

Keeping up: Journalism word games, slogans, euphemisms and misdirections

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Journalists’ need to nurture professional skepticism should apply to the latest partisan lingo.

Examples from showbiz and advertising are legion. Are drivers of cars other than Subarus unloving? If a TV drama announces that the events and characters are totally fictional, the viewer automatically thinks “this story must be about real events and characters. Otherwise why the disclaimer?”  

Public discourse on politics, morals and religion is full of such word games, slogans, euphemisms and carefully calculated misdirections. 

In politics, during the Great Depression conservatives coined a classic still with us, the “right to work law,” which actually means the “right to refuse union membership or dues-paying,” and in reality “the right to have a weak union.” Ask your Guild rep. The Jan. 17 New York Times Magazine ran down the ways different eras have proudly embraced or shunned “progressive” and “liberal.”  “Left-leaning” becomes cautious journalistic usage when “liberal” is a slur. Has “socialist” suddenly become benign now that 43 percent of Iowa Democrats accept that label? 

In other up-to-the-minute canons, oppressive-sounding “gun control” is now “gun safety.” Insurgent Tea Party favorite Marco Rubio is magically an “establishment” candidate. In current campaign speak, “amnesty” means whatever immigration policy the other guy wants -- or used to want.  Newswriters are now expected to replace “illegal” immigrant with “undocumented.” 

Turning to moral and sexual conflicts, the Stylebook from The Religion Guy’s former Associated Press colleagues has this stumble (unless it’s been corrected in the latest edition):  “Use anti-abortion instead of pro-life and abortion rights instead of pro-abortion or pro-choice.”

My take: "Anti" sounds negative while “rights” is positive for Americans. Better for journalists to use parallel terms that leaders on the two sides accept as their labels, “pro-life” vs. “pro-choice,” admitting that the latter skirts what action is being chosen. Meanwhile, conservatives borrow that helpful “choice” slogan when it comes to schools.

“Gay” or “same-sex marriage” has lately become “marriage equality,” which sounds better. Some gays now say “homosexual” should be shelved as offensive. Activists have expanded from LGBT to LGBTQQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, allies) or perhaps A for asexual. This lettering discriminates against the “pansexual” and “polyamorous.” Media often brand cultural or religious conservatives on the marriage issue as odiously “anti-gay,” which suggests “anti-gayS” as though they’re hostile toward people instead of policies -- which takes sides because that’s how gays feel about things.

It’s perilous not to keep up with the times on such matters. A December New York City Commission on Human Rights edict requires that employers, landlords and service providers be fined up to $250,000 if they deliberately address individuals with the wrong pronoun, the pronoun they have embraced. The idea here is to refer only to transgender persons’ psychological identity as opposed to their genetic makeup and birth anatomy. Apparently journalists remain exempt.

In religious labeling, “ultra” is journalistic code language for “extremists you shouldn’t like,” as with “ultra-fundamentalist.”  For that matter, “fundamentalist” has long been an F-bomb. As the aforementioned Stylebook states (and as this site frequently notes), the term “has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations” and generally should not be used “unless a group applies the word to itself” -- a good principle for the abortion wars.

The above reflections were provoked by one of the Religion Guy’s oldest –- and smartest –- friends, who commented a few days ago that polls showing wide fondness for candidate Donald Trump among self-identified “evangelicals” signal that this designation has now lost all meaning.

Newswriters have spotted the split between most evangelical leaders (quietly or openly anti-Trump) and the grassroots (largely pro in some regions). Said friend means there’s an emerging gap between “evangelicals” who are religious in the pre-2015  understanding over against some emotional, attitudinal or cultural "evangelical" identity bereft of religious substance that Trump appeals to.  

Which means the Religion Guy’s Jan. 17 "define evangelical" Memo is already out of date!

Categories: Main

Oklahoma is contemplating a 'sin tax' on cigarettes, but no one's calling it that

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin has close to 25,000 followers on Twitter, but she only follows 284 people. I'm one of the people she follows; I made a screenshot of this fact for after she realizes her mistake.

I assume my home state's governor followed me so she wouldn't miss any of my enlightening posts on GetReligion.

So I thought I'd write a post about Fallin — or more specifically, one of her proposals.

In her annual address to the state Legislature on Monday, the Republican chief executive proposed raising Oklahoma's cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, as reported by The Oklahoman:

For her part, Fallin said “bold action” is needed given a budget crisis caused by a drop in oil prices. Lawmakers have about $900 million less to spend in next year’s budget compared to the current year.The proposed cigarette tax increase would generate $181.6 million, while targeting a practice that is making many Oklahomans sick, Fallin said. Another $200 million would be realized through sales tax changes.“If we don’t change the way we apportion and collect revenues, most state agencies will be faced with a 13.5 percent appropriation cut for the upcoming 2017 fiscal year — or a total cut of 16.5 percent since July 1 ” she said in her yearly State of the State address.

In a follow-up report on today's front page, Oklahoman Capitol Bureau chief Rick M. Green (a former Associated Press colleague of mine) noted that Oklahoma voters could decide the issue:

Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin would like to boost the tax on a pack of cigarettes by $1.50, but it may be up to voters to actually get that accomplished.She disclosed her proposed tax hike in a speech Monday, immediately drawing praise from those concerned about the medical dangers of smoking.“One of the things we know from science is that one of the most effective ways to decrease tobacco and cigarette consumption is to raise the price point of the product ” state Health Commissioner Terry Cline said Tuesday.A vote on the issue would take place in the November general election under a bill that has been introduced in the Legislature, he said.Cline said the increase would apply both to tribal and nontribal cigarettes.

So what's the religion angle? Why am I writing about this proposal at GetReligion? Glad you asked.

What Fallin has proposed is a "sin tax." Except no one seems to be calling it that — at least not in the news coverage I've seen.

What is a "sin tax?"

Here's how I described it in 2004, when I was writing about religion and politics for the AP in Texas:

Sin is a politician's friend.Politicians know that wrapping a tax around a societal vice — be it smoking, gambling or even topless dancers — is usually an easier sale than an across-the-board tax on everybody's home, income or groceries.From that standpoint, Gov. Rick Perry's focus on taxing "unhealthy behaviors" as he seeks to fix Texas' school financing system is a brilliant move, experts say."Americans always talk about taxes as if they were a kind of sin," said James Morone, a Brown University political scientist. "So for a politician, the way to inoculate yourself is, you find a bigger sinner and you turn it on them."

Are we talking about a legitimate holy ghost in news coverage of Fallin's proposal? Maybe not.

But I do think the "sin tax" angle would be an interesting one for journalists to explore.

Image via

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Washington Post: Priests have complex views on gay life, but why seek diverse voices?

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The recent "Social Issues" feature in The Washington Post with the headline, "‘I’m gay and I’m a priest, period'," was pretty much what one would have expected it to be in the age of Kellerism (definition here and here). Still, this essay deserves careful reading.

You see, it does contain one very important and accurate statement of fact that needs to be discussed, if our goal is to read this feature as hard-news journalism about a crucial issue in the Roman Catholic Church, rather than as an advocacy piece or editorial published in support of a cause.

This crucial statement is as follows:

Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform.

That is certainly true and fleshing out that statement with interviews with priests from all over that spectrum of beliefs would have been a good map for producing a solid news story. But that is not what the Post team decided to do.

During my own work as a journalist, I have encountered several different stances among Catholic clergy on issues linked to sexual orientation and the moral status of sexual acts outside of the Sacrament of Marriage. Like what? I'll try to keep this short. I have encountered priests in the following camps.

There are Catholic priests who believe that the church's ancient teachings on sexuality:

* Are correct and that they should be defended. It is crucial to note, when considering this Post article, that there are gay priests (and other LGBT thinkers in the faith) who hold this stance.

* Are correct, but that the church is doing a terrible job of handling same-sex issues at the level of pastoral life and apologetics. Some would say that Catholics need to do a better job of addressing the lives and concerns of single people -- period.

* Are wrong and should be modernized to fit our evolving culture. They believe that this work should be done openly. Some would even be open about how they have embraced some rather loose definitions of "celibacy."

* Are wrong, but that they will have to work behind the scenes to gently push the church toward the modern world, since to do this work openly would be suicide in a homophobic church.

I could go on, but that's a start.

Now, as you read this Post feature -- here is that link again -- look for evidence that the journalists who worked on this piece have included material that demonstrates the truth contained in that crucial sentence: "Priests’ views of the church’s handling of homosexuality are not uniform." Or, is the article dominated by one of these perspectives, or maybe two, with other points of view deliberately left out?

Where, for example, are the voices in this piece belonging to gay and straight priests who support the church's teachings on sexuality, the doctrines expressed today in the Catholic Catechism? Can you find passages in which their views are taken seriously?

Meanwhile, here is how the article begins:

God, what are you calling me to do here, prayed the priest. Come out, or stay in the closet?After 23 years in Chicago parishes, the question had pushed its way to the surface.He weighed his options. He thought about his parishioners. Many, he knew, were accepting of gay people, even of same-sex marriage, but others — less so. He had grown up in a large Catholic family; he understood what people’s faith meant to them. He didn’t want to harm his flock, or the Catholic Church.He wondered if he could be penalized in his job. And, in truth, he considered his status. He knew many Catholics had what he might call a romanticized view of the priesthood: Priests are supposed to be pure, almost above the world of sexuality, selflessly willing to give up creating a family of their own to serve God. This would mean falling from that pedestal.Then, he weighed these factors against the impact his coming out could have on the lives of young gay people in treatment for addiction or who are suicidal, on the parents and grandparents who feel they must choose between their gay child and their church. For some, knowing their priest is gay — and at peace with it — could be healing, he felt.He thought of his complex feelings. He had no ax to grind, and he wasn’t an advocate.He set the rules at the outset: He did not want to be identified in this article. But at the end of the first conversation, he said: I’m leaning towards using my real name.

The tone of the article fits this overture.

Now, this is a long, long, article and, as you would expect, it is framed by the standard mainstream press interpretation of the famous "Who am I to judge?" remarks by Pope Francis. Click here for links to a transcript and discussions of what he actually said.

It would appear that the Post team is becoming frustrated that Pope Francis appears to be in the second camp that I described above, the one in which Catholic clergy believe the church's teachings are correct, but that changes are needed at the level of pastoral care and apologetics. What does it mean, for example, that this pope believes it is crucial for believers -- gays included -- to keep seeking the mercy of God through the confession of their sins?

How does that stance fit into this crucial passage in the Post feature?

Gay priests are invisible in this debate; the church does not research the topic. However, interviews with a dozen priests and former seminarians who are gay, and experts on gay priests, reveal a group of men mostly comfortable with their sexuality. Many express no urgency for the church to accept it. Some, however, say the priesthood remains sexually repressive; one said there is an “invisible wall” around the topic among priests.They speak forcefully about the tough work they had to do to accept their sexuality and how important a part it is of who they are. But their acceptance of the closet often harks back to an earlier time.This is in part, they say, because as priests they vowed to put service to God over all else.

The crucial issue, you see, is whether priests -- gay and straight -- actually believe the teachings of the Catholic faith, as in the teachings that they took vows to defend.

The content of the vows taken by priests are never really addressed in this article. Isn't that a rather important religion ghost in this story?

Now, there is one other issue that should be addressed -- which is the way this piece handles a key, and very controversial, piece of language in the Catechism. First, there is this:

But some also fear the consequences of coming out in the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy frames a gay life as a diversion from God’s ideal. Parts of church teaching call being gay “objectively disordered.”

Note that the current "hierarchy" is the source of this teaching, not an unbroken chain of church doctrines that date back into the earliest documents of church history (think 50-120 A.D. or so). We are just talking about the prejudices of a small group of men, you see.

Meanwhile, the URL in that passage is to the Catechism. However, later in the Post piece there is this important and complex passage:

Even as the doctrine banning same-sex relationships has not changed, the church has varied its emphasis and message on the topic.The most recent authoritative statement came in 2005, from Pope Benedict XVI, who, seeking to clarify doctrine after the sweeping changes under the Second Vatican Council, wrote that being gay is “objectively disordered.” The church, “while profoundly respecting the persons in question, cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practice homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called ‘gay culture,’ ” Benedict said.The message seemed clear, say many priests and several people who train seminarians. Many who had considered coming out of the closet decided to stay in.Yet the intent behind Benedict’s words has been debated. Some say he never meant to bar gay men who are celibate. Others say he meant to keep out men who feel strongly defined by their sexuality, and perhaps would be challenged by celibacy.Regardless, there is no question that in the past few years church leaders are emphasizing far more that Catholicism accepts people who are gay -- it’s the sexual relationships or marriage that is the problem.

Once again, there are many issues contained in that chunk of text and -- trust me -- there are a wide variety of viewpoints found among Catholic clergy and scholars on these issues. So where are the diverse voices in this story? Where are the clashing points of view, when it comes to actual interviews with real priests who take these different stances?

Also, what about that “objectively disordered" language? It appears that Post editors want to have it both ways, saying that it came from the conservative, and thus bad, Pope Benedict XVI and that it was from the Catechism. Perhaps Benedict did not write this doctrinal material, but merely quoted it?

As it turns out (thanks to a Catholic journalist for some of this material), the "objectively disordered" -- or "intrinsically disordered" -- language dates to the mid-1970s and a document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith entitled Persona Humana. No, that language was written before Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict XVI) moved to Rome. Meanwhile, the Catechism was approved in 1992, under the authority of Saint Pope John Paul II.

So which is it? Why try to blame this doctrinal language on Pope Benedict XVI when it clearly was in authoritative teachings before he arrived at the Vatican?

I think we know the answer to that question.

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Of football and faith in Fairbanks: The News-Miner tells half the story

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

I spent nine months at the University of Alaska this past academic year teaching journalism and one of the courses I offered was on religion reporting.

It’s a needed quantity in the 49th state, as the only Alaskan on the rolls of the Religion Newswriters Association was one of my students and there’s no one really covering the beat anywhere in the state. Which is odd, and sad, since Alaska has a varied religious history ranging from Russian Orthodox missionaries to much more recent Muslim immigrants.

Every once in a blue moon, I’d spot a piece about religion in the Alaska Dispatch News, the state’s largest paper. In the fall of 2014, I asked its publisher, Alice Rogoff, about hiring a full-time specialist, and she sounded interested but a year later, I am still waiting for news. I should note the ADN has Chris Thompson, a religion columnist who fills in some of the gaps, but in terms of hard news, there’s not much out there. The ADN is based in Anchorage but I lived to the north in Fairbanks, where the biggest religion story last year was the installation of a new Catholic bishop.

Which is why I was a bit surprised to see a piece in the News-Miner, Fairbanks’ daily newspaper, about an unwanted Christian message at a local public school. It starts as follows:

FAIRBANKS -- A speaker who visited several Fairbanks public schools may have run afoul of federal law last week when he handed out religious ministry material to students during at least one all-school assembly.The speaker, Randy Rich, visited most of the secondary schools in the Fairbanks North Star Borough School District. His talk was titled “Dare to Dream” and focused on conceiving and achieving life goals.The speech itself avoided adhering to a specifically religious message, but some teachers expressed concern after Rich, following his speech, offered a ministry pamphlet to students that he reportedly billed as his football card from his time playing in the National Football League.“The Bible says that ‘He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus’ (Philippians 1:6). If you want to know more about the message of God’s love and saving grace, please contact me,” the card states.Concerns were initially raised by at least one teacher before Rich’s assembly had begun at Ryan Middle School.

It took me awhile to figure out who Rich was, as the article didn’t say he was a defensive back for three different teams. It didn’t say what Rich’s age was, which I am guessing is in his early 60s, judging by a college graduation date of 1976.  

The article goes on to quote the teacher at length, then to describe how the newspaper contacted the state American Civil Liberties Union chapter to get its opinion. As a result, ACLU Alaska has demanded the school district apologize for having this speaker in. I wasn’t familiar with this teacher but he’s leaked inside news to this News Miner reporter before.

I thought more about the piece. Here’s a state where the rates of child sexual assault are the nation’s highest (that is, six times the national average); where people joke about buying “happy lamps” to stave off winter depression; where the school district has been laying off teachers because of declining enrollment and plummeting budgets due to low state oil revenues. I can’t help but feel that a chance exposure to Christianity might be the least of all the problems that public school students (of which my daughter was one) might face there.

Anyway, here is a .pdf of the materials that Rich passed out. The article did quote from the principal who said she’d not gotten any parent complaints about the speech, which supports my gut instinct that most parents in that region have a lot more to worry about than their kids getting religious ideas from a pamphlet.

At the end of the piece, it said all attempts to reach Rich and his organization failed, in which case it seems only fair to go search out someone who approved of Rich or a kid who got something from the presentation. As it was, there was one complaining teacher who went on the record to complain about the school "violating the Constitution" by allowing Rich to speak. Pray tell, where in the Constitution was this teacher referring to?

The reporter also quoted the ACLU and a principal who was backed into a corner.  The article mentioned Rich as speaking at other middle schools in town, but the reporter apparently didn’t contact any of them to see if religious material was passed out there.

It’s really too bad that Rich and his organization didn’t get around to commenting on the matter and it doesn’t say much for them that they eluded the reporter’s calls. Still, when you’ve got mainly one local source complaining about the presentation, it's worth asking how many people are truly upset about this. Plus, the reporter needs to work a bit harder to get both sides represented. Otherwise it sounds like a witch hunt in the snow.

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'Pinkwashing,' Israel, LGBT activists and the conference the mainstream media missed

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Anti-Israel activists are a varied lot. Some seek a particular political change in Israel, such as an end to construction of West Bank Jewish settlement housing that they believe undermines any reasonable, two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Then there are those who oppose everything and anything Israel does because -- well, because I believe their ultimate goal is the destruction of the Jewish state and its replacement by a single Palestinian-dominated nation. They're more than just anti-Israel; they're really anti-Zionist, in that their hostility is not limited to Israeli government policies but to the very idea of there being a Jewish state in the Middle East.

Moreover, they hold to that anti-Israel/anti-Zionist position even if the issue at hand is one they would normally support big time if any other nation were involved. The latest example of this relates to the issue of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) rights and societal acceptance.

The Israel-be-damned-24-7 crowd rejects the many legal gains that LGBT people have achieved in Israel by calling it "pinkwashing." Given the diversity and sensitivities within the LGBT community, the term itself sounds to me like outdated, negative stereotyping.

Nevertheless, the term is used to reference the activists' claim that Israeli society's liberal approach toward LGBT rights is insincere and hypocritical and meant only to divert attention from what the activists insist is Israel's unconscionable treatment of Palestinians.

The issue surfaced in a big way at last month's Creating Change Conference held in Chicago. The conference is the nation's largest annual gay rights gathering. Anti-Israel gay rights activists -- joined by outsiders with their own anti-Israel beefs, or simply to show solidarity -- loudly, angrily and forcefully sought to shut down a conference event because American Jewish gay activists had invited Israeli gay activists to join them.

Charges of blatant anti-Semitism were leveled at the protesters, prompting conference sponsors to offer an apology. Click here for a brief Chicago Sun-Times piece on the mea culpa.

But wait. You say you hadn't heard about this story?

Perhaps that's because it received very little coverage in American media, despite the raucousness of the anti-Israel protest in a prominent public hotel. LGBT, American Jewish and Israeli media, on the other hand, have run story after story on what happened.

Here's one piece from a Chicago gay-oriented paper. And here's another from The Washington Blade, the capital city's LGBT paper, and one more from a leading American Jewish publication, The Forward.

Not even Chicago's big dailies paid much attention to the uproar in their midst. My Web search turned up nothing in The Chicago Tribune (readers: please let know if you saw something I missed). And while The Sun-Times did run a couple of pieces, including the one linked to above, they were short and read as if they were pulled together from press releases and Web rip offs. No real time reporting was in evidence.

Given that gay rights and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict command so much media attention, I was surprised that the Creating Change Conference was so overlooked.

As for the Chicago mainstream media's lack of attention, I'm even more surprised given that the city and its suburbs have large Jewish, Arab/Muslim and LGBT communities

Presumably, they all would have great interest in this story.

I was able to find a few after-the-fact mainstream-media opinion columns that took umbrage with the protest. Here's one that ran on The Washington Post's website.  Here's another from The New York Post.

In the interest of fairness and completeness -- because I think regular GetReligion readers are pretty clear about where I stand on Israel-related issues -- here's a link to a piece defending the pinkwashing charge and the Creating Change demonstration. It's from Electric Intifada, which, as its name implies, is very much pro-Palestinian.

Israel is the one Middle East nation with a national policy supportive of gay rights. Tel Aviv, Israel's overwhelmingly secular beachfront city, is often called the most LGBT-friendly city in the Middle East, and is promoted by city and national tourism officials as a great vacation destination for LGBT travelers.

This is not to say that all Israelis look favorably upon homosexuality, and certainly not upon its open display. Some Jewish religious traditionalists have acted violently toward gays. Hostility toward LGBT individuals and rights are also deeply rooted in Israel's Arab community, which is more socially conservative than the general Jewish population.

So why was this story overlooked?

Frankly, I don't think it's because the media is tiring of LGBT and/or Israel conflict stories. In the Web world -- the new battleground for media consumers -- these subjects tend to fire up the clicks and comment sections. Trolls and sincerely involved readers alike, from all sides of these issues, seem to live for opportunities to have their say.

Rather, I think the missing coverage is just another sign of the shrinkage of real-time, shoe-leather reporting in this era of major staff downsizing that is radically reshaping -- some would say destroying -- the news business.

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Evangelicals in Iowa: Making sense of what happened in the first voting of 2016

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Is your head still spinning?

I'll admit it: My head's still spinning as I try to make sense of what just happened among evangelical voters in the Iowa caucuses.

For months, we've heard about polls indicating that brash, foul-mouthed Donald Trump had become the darling of conservative Christians. (Whaaaaatttt?)

But Ted Cruz — not Trump — emerged victorious in the Hawkeye State, with Marco Rubio a close third.

What role did religion play?

Across the river in Nebraska, here's how the Omaha World-Herald described the outcome:

DES MOINES — The church vote proved stronger than a billionaire’s legion of angry fans Monday as Ted Cruz won the Iowa Republican caucuses.Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, relied upon strong evangelical support to defeat Donald Trump, the flamboyant New Yorker whose entire political persona is built on the idea he is a winner and not a loser.In fact, Trump barely held on to his second-place finish in the face of a surge by Marco Rubio, a Florida senator who many believe is now in a good position to unify the establishment wing of the Republican Party behind his candidacy.“It’s a nice, nice bump for Cruz and it certainly puts Trump in the position of being a loser not a winner,” said Dave Redlawsk, a political scientist at Rutgers University who studies the Iowa caucuses.“But the real story may be Rubio. He did better than anticipated,” said Redlawsk. “It suggests a big move to Rubio at the end.”

In its lead front-page story, The New York Times declared that Cruz was "powered by a surge of support from evangelical Christians." Using similar wording, The Wall Street Journal pointed to "a surge of evangelical Christians, along with support from the Republican Party’s most conservative voters" as combining to bolster Cruz. 

In Cruz's home state of Texas, the Houston Chronicle declared:

A Southern Baptist and preacher’s son, the Texas senator rode a shock wave of evangelical fervor and disenchantment with government, a potent formula that propelled conservative Christians to victory in the past two GOP caucuses in this farm state.

Meanwhile, NPR noted:

In the end, Cruz relied on the strategy that had worked for Rick Santorum in 2012 and for Mike Huckabee in 2008, going straight at the state's evangelical Christian voters. That group was once again estimated at 60 percent of the GOP caucus population. And Cruz was clearly their preferred entrant in a field of a dozen that included both Santorum and Huckabee.

And Iowa's flagship newspaper, the Des Moines Register, reported:

Iowa, a state where almost half of likely GOP caucusgoers identify themselves as born-again or evangelical Christians, continued its trend of promoting a social conservative rather than the national front-runner. Trump leads by 16 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics rolling average of national polls.

The Washington Post went deeper than most media outlets in explaining how evangelicals and a solid ground game propelled Cruz:

DES MOINES — It was on a hot July day in 2013, six months after he joined the Senate, that Ted Cruz began what would become his winning campaign in Iowa.At a faith gathering at the Des Moines Marriott, the Texan bowed his head as pastors laid their hands on his shoulders to pray. Meanwhile, the senator’s aides collected their names and email addresses, starting a database of evangelical leaders that would swell over the following months and years. Cruz’s father, Rafael, himself a preacher, looked on, beaming.

So, what does it all mean? Some more concrete numbers on how evangelicals voted would be helpful. Anybody seen any of those figures? If so, please share links in the comments section.

Other questions moving forward: Will Cruz fare better than the past two social conservatives to claim Iowa (Santorum and Huckabee) did? Will the Trump factor among evangelicals remain a major storyline, or did Iowa mark the beginning of the Donald's end? Will Rubio (who thanked his "Lord and Savior Jesus Christ" for his surprisingly strong showing) grab more of the evangelical spotlight? 

As always of course, familiar questions — Who is an an evangelical? Who isn't? Who says so? — will be important in assessing the campaign outlook and media coverage. 

After last night's results, this much seems certain: The 2016 presidential race just got even more intriguing. And we didn't even mention Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

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Boko Haram strikes again, in attack that burns generic children alive in their huts

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

 It's a logical question: At this point, does it really matter whether the children burned alive in the latest Boko Haram attack were Muslims or Christians?

On one level, the answer is clearly, "no." It's clear that the forces of Boko Haram -- now loyal to the Islamic State caliphate -- kill anyone who stands in the way of their movement. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether those dying are crying out to Jesus or to Allah.

Yet I would like to argue that this detail does matter. At the very least, I think it is significant that editors at the Associated Press -- who prepare the copy read by most consumers outside of elite news markets -- think that readers do not want to know that detail.

Stop and think about that. America contains a significant number of Christians. If those who died were Christians, are we to assume that many readers would not want to know about these new martyrs and confessors, some of them children?

However, if you look at the images, it certainly appears that the village burned in this attack was a majority Muslim community. I would argue that it is just as important for American news consumers to be reminded -- again and again -- that Boko Haram is slaughtering just as many Muslims, if not more, than Christians. Why? We will come back to that.

I read the following AP report all the way through before it hit me that the identity of the victims was left completely and utterly vague, as if this fact didn't matter. Here is how the report opens:

A survivor hidden in a tree says he watched Boko Haram extremists firebomb huts and heard the screams of children burning to death, among 86 people officials say died in the latest attack by Nigeria's homegrown Islamic extremists.Scores of charred corpses and bodies with bullet wounds littered the streets from Saturday night's attack on Dalori village and two nearby camps housing 25,000 refugees, according to survivors and soldiers at the scene just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram and the biggest city in Nigeria's northeast.The shooting, burning and explosions from three suicide bombers continued for nearly four hours in the unprotected area, survivor Alamin Bakura said, weeping on a telephone call to The Associated Press. He said several of his family members were killed or wounded.

And it ends like this:

Eighty-six bodies were collected by Sunday afternoon, according to Mohammed Kanar, area coordinator of the National Emergency Management Agency. Another 62 people are being treated for burns, said Abba Musa of the State Specialist Hospital in Maiduguri.Boko Haram has been attacking soft targets, increasingly with suicide bombers, since the military last year drove them out of towns and villages in northeastern Nigeria. The 6-year Islamic uprising has killed about 20,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.

And that is that. This is just another collection of bloody, charred facts -- with no need to discuss motive or the logic of the attack.

Believe it or not, editors at The Los Angeles Times (just to visit another source) also felt that readers consuming their product didn't need to know whether the victims were Christians or Muslims -- or a combination of the two, in this heavily Muslim region.

At USA Today, editors added some material to the basic AP report, but did not add an additional information about the victims or the logic of Boko Haram's attack. Ditto for Newsweek.

I don't think we're seeing a conspiracy here. I just don't think the editors think that religion has much to do with why these people are dying or why the Islamic State and its allies are doing what they do. Seriously?

Then again, maybe journalists are still confused about Boko Haram. You may recall that The New York Times once printed the following (quoting from an earlier post):

The group’s mission, over the course of a nearly five-year insurrection, is mysterious, beyond a generalized goal of destabilizing the Nigerian state.

Mysterious? In that post, I pointed readers toward a BBC explainer that added crucial, factual, material:

Nigeria's militant Islamist group Boko Haram ... is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. Its followers are said to be influenced by the Koranic phrase which says: "Anyone who is not governed by what Allah has revealed is among the transgressors".

After all, the official name of Boko Haram is not confusing or mysterious -- it's Jama'atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda'awati wal-Jihad. That's Arabic for "People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet's Teachings and Jihad."

So can you see why it is so important for AP and other major newsrooms identify the victims, even if they are Muslims? It's crucial to note that these radicalized Muslims kill all who stand in their way, including -- or even especially -- if they are Muslims who reject their approach to Sharia law and Muslims who welcome a state in which Christians and Muslims worship as equals.

Maybe I am wrong. At this point, after all of these attacks, is it acceptable -- or perhaps even preferable -- for the children who are being burned alive to remain, as I would say, generic in terms of the faith claimed by their families?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Essay on asks: Should journalists who go undercover doing research be worried?

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Yes, this is a post about legal issues linked to the Planned Parenthood videos. But that is not where I want to start.

If you followed the twisting legal arguments surrounding the Westboro Baptist Church protests -- especially the horrible demonstrations at the funerals of military veterans -- you know that most of the headlines focused on freedom of speech.

However, journalists had a lot at stake in this fight, too (whether they felt comfortable about that or not). Why is that? Here is how I described the crucial press-freedom issue in a post -- "Why journalists love Westboro Baptist" -- back in 2010. I asked readers to glance at the coverage of Westboro's arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court and:

Then answer these questions. In addition to telling the story of the grieving family, which is essential, does the report in your local news source tell you (a) that the protests were moved to another location that was not in view of the church at which the funeral was held and that mourners did not need to pass the demonstration? Then, (b) does it note that the grieving father's only viewing of these hateful, hellish demonstrations took place when he viewed news media reports or read materials posted on the church's website? Those facts are at the heart of this case, when you are looking at the legal arguments from a secular, legal, even journalistic point of view. This is why so many mainstream news organizations are backing the church.

In other words, when push came to shove journalists had to defend their own right to cover these hateful demonstrations. People who thought of themselves as "liberals" kept shooting at Westboro and hitting the First Amendment, instead. As a statement at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press put it, in 2011:

Noting that even the most repugnant speech must be afforded the same protection as any other statement, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press was pleased by today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding a church’s First Amendment right to protest near military funerals."These were by no means sympathetic defendants, but the Court upheld the important principle that speech on matters of public concern must be protected from tort liability if the First Amendment's guarantees are to mean anything," according to Gregg Leslie, legal defense director of the Reporters Committee. "While many people would want to see these protests restricted, a holding against the church members would have threatened a great deal of public debate on controversial topics if any listeners could show they were personally distressed to hear unpleasant speech."

This brings me to the celebrations in normally liberal quarters about the recent decision to legally sock it to the independent journalists/activists who shot all those undercover videos of conversations with key Planned Parenthood personnel and leaders. For a perfect example of the reactions to the indictments by the entertainment-news complex, see the Seth Meyers video at the top of this post.

However, you had to wonder: Would the cultural and legal left have been as quick to cheer indictments against people who went undercover to ask tough inside, oh, a nuclear power station, a church counseling program for LGBT believers who want to change their sex lives or even, let's say, a crisis pregnancy center?

The flip side of that is obvious. Would any mainstream media professionals or experts in their brain trusts have second thoughts?

Well, there was this. Journalism historian Marvin Olasky, a strong voice on the cultural right, cheered the following essay run by CNN. It was written by law professors Sherry F. Colb and Michael Dorf of Cornell University. Both stress that they are pro-abortion-rights and strong defenders of Planned Parenthood.

Two cheers for CNN

— Marvin Olasky (@MarvinOlasky) January 30, 2016

You are going to want to read all of this if, like me, you are pretty radical in your defense of the whole First Amendment. But here are one or two crucial chunks:

It remains to be seen whether David Daleiden, director of the pro-life Center for Medical Progress, and Sandra Merritt, a center employee, have committed serious crimes. Because grand jury proceedings are secret, we do not yet know the precise nature of the evidence against them.However, it appears the charges arise entirely out of their efforts to deceive Planned Parenthood officials in order to gain access. The felony charge of tampering with government records relates to their alleged use of false IDs, and the misdemeanor charge of attempting to buy fetal remains seemingly overlooks the fact that Daleiden and Merritt were only posing as buyers to expose what they believed was illegal conduct by others.Whatever the precise facts of this case prove to be, the prosecution has broader implications, and not just for abortion and anti-abortion speech. Undercover exposés play a vital role in informing the American public of important facts that would otherwise remain hidden.

After citing some historical examples of this kind of muckraking, in the best sense of the word, they add:

To be sure, legislators and judges have good reason to tread carefully in recognizing a journalist's right of access to private property. In the age of Facebook and YouTube, anyone with a mobile phone can plausibly claim to be a citizen journalist.Accordingly, any right of undercover access would need to be limited to matters of genuine public concern, lest snoops posing as door-to-door salespeople and housekeepers violate legitimate interests in privacy. Even journalists or activists investigating a story in which the public has a real interest should not be given carte blanche to expose truly private facts, such as the identity or medical history of Planned Parenthood patients.Thus, the law can legitimately circumscribe undercover investigations. For example, the Center for Medical Progress could possibly be held civilly liable for misleading editing of the Planned Parenthood videos. But the criminal prosecution of Daleiden and Merritt, even if they did break the law, could chill undercover journalists and activists everywhere.

Has anyone seen other examples of liberals worried that this move against undercover journalism might be part of an illiberal trend? Would the same action have been taken against independent journalists on the religious and cultural left?

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