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Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Concerning the strange tale of the Associated Press and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: I have some good news, some bad news, a disturbing update and one very good question from a reader.

First the good news.

If you will recall, my earlier post on this topic -- "Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press? -- asked for a correction in an AP story that mixed up some crucial details in 2,000 years of Christian beliefs about the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. This is the kind of information that isn't hard to get online or, for that matter, in a Bible at the newsroom reference desk.

Well, I am happy to report that this story, at the main AP site, now opens with a clear correction, which is even flagged in the headline. The correction states:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- In a story March 20 about renovations at the tomb of Jesus, The Associated Press reported erroneously that the Edicule is revered by Christians as the site where Jesus rose to heaven. Tradition says the Jerusalem shrine is the site of Jesus' resurrection, not the ascension to heaven.

The crucial issue, of course, is whether the newspapers that carried this report, in America and around the world, will run this same correction. GetReligion readers who saw this report in their local newspapers may want to let us know in the comments section.

What about the bad news?

Well, it does appear that someone still needs to explain basic Christianity to the photo-desk at the main Associated Press office. You see, as if this morning, the tag line for the main photo released with this fine feature still reads as follows:

The renovated Edicule is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem's old city Monday, Mar. 20, 2017. A Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Obviously, the AP team now needs to ship a correction for this photo information, or simply expand the current correction with some kind of alert to photo and layout specialists in newsrooms. Wrong is still wrong.

One other point, as a way of underlining that there are complicated issues here. Several readers wrote in to make statements such as this: "Also in the photo description the sepulcher is described as the site of the crucifixion which occurred on Golgotha not in a cave."

Well, that would be true, sort of. The key is that the early church believed that Jesus was buried in a stone tomb not far from the place where he was crucified. This gets into complicated arguments about the precise location of the city walls at that time.

The bottom line: Early church leaders believed that BOTH of these holy places (shown in graphic at the top of this post) are contained inside the sprawling Church of the Holy Sepulchre. How is this possible? Much of the surrounding hillside was removed in construction (and destruction) of the church.

There are those -- Protestants mainly -- who disagree. This is complicated, but fascinating, stuff. (Click here for a Christianity Today feature, by my friend Gordon Govier, about some of these debates.)

Anyway, the corrected text at the main AP site how reads:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory.Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was entombed and resurrected.Gone is the unsightly iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls. Gone is the black soot on the shrine's stone façade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles. And gone are fears about the stability of the old shrine, which hadn't been restored in more than 200 years.

The fears are gone? Not according to and new report from journalists at National Geographic, who have been closely linked to this project. This disturbing story argues that the foundation UNDER the shrine now needs to be repaired. The headline on this piece is stark: "Exclusive: Tomb of Christ at Risk of 'Catastrophic' Collapse."

The Associated Press may want to plan a follow-up story, as Holy Week approaches.

What about that good question from a GetReligion reader, one Christopher Enge?

I have a couple journalistic questions for Terry. Do big time papers make these kinds of errors with religions other than Christianity? To me, it seems like a basic matter of respect to find out about someone's deepest beliefs when writing about them.Second, one thing I've wondered as a long-time reader of getreligion as well as a listener to Terry's interviews on Issues, Etc. is whether these kind of basic factual errors are unique to the religion beat or is it a symptom of general ignorance and lack of professional competence? It seems like with many stories where I know something about the subject, whether religious or not, there are statements of fact that strike me as wrong. Is there a lot of general sloppiness in journalism made by writers who think they know more than they do or is this a problem specific to religious stories?

It would take a book to answer all of these questions. Yes, similar errors take place with other religions. That raises the question whether, in newsrooms in America (a nation that is allegedly majority Christian in background), journalists are equally unfamiliar with Christianity and, well, other world faiths such as Buddhism or Islam.

Yes, there are often errors of fact on other complicated news beats. One witty journalists, in a discussion long ago, did note that it was interesting that many American journalists seem to know less about Christmas and Easter than about simple subjects such as DNA sequencing and global climate change. How often does one see errors on basic facts linked to sports and politics? Clearly, all newsrooms take those subjects seriously.

So, yes, it does appear that many, many journalists do not get religion. It also appears that some newsroom managers still do not want to hire veteran, skilled religion-beat professionals who can do something about that.

Categories: Main

Faith-healing in Idaho: A Spokane paper doesn't ask enough questions

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Spokesman-Review, the major daily east of the mountains in Washington state, doesn’t have a religion reporter, which is one reason why the Religion News Association started up its own website in Spokane in 2012.

Tracy Simmons is still capably running SpokaneFavs.com five years later, which may be why religion coverage in the Spokesman-Review is pretty rare. But on Tuesday, the paper did feature a piece about a state Senate bill in neighboring Idaho that tried to regulate faith-healing groups.

This is a tremendously interesting topic but see if you can understand the story as it appeared in Tuesday’s paper:

BOISE -- Controversial faith-healing legislation narrowly cleared an Idaho Senate committee on Monday, after a hearing in which nearly everyone who spoke opposed it.Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, said his bill, SB 1182, makes a series of changes to Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption from civil liability for child neglect, but makes no changes in the state’s criminal laws, which include a religious exemption from prosecution for faith-healing parents who deny their children medical care and the children die or suffer permanent injury.“I’m not sure that it really changes a whole lot,” said Johnson, who co-chaired a legislative interim working group that held hearings on Idaho’s existing faith-healing exemption, “other than it moves a bunch of words and sentences around.”

What we’re missing at this point is some background

Johnson said his bill restates Idaho’s current religious exemption from civil liability for child abuse or neglect as an “affirmative statement,” and clarifies some wording. It also references Idaho’s existing Religious Freedom Restoration Act, citing rights to free exercise of religion. “That is a fundamental right that applies to all parenting decisions,” Johnson said. The bill makes no changes to Idaho’s criminal laws.Then follows a number of quotes from people who oppose the bill, including a county sheriff who says he’s had a handful of child deaths in the past four months due to parents not giving their offspring medical care.

A group called Followers of Christ is identified, but we’re not told anything about them. A woman who grew up in this group but now opposes them was also quoted along with a member of FoC. Two politicians are quoted, along with a person from Protect Idaho Kids Foundation, which helps the story move along –- to a point.

But we’re given so little background about the bill that I still couldn’t figure out what was going on after two readings. Thus, I looked around and found a helpful piece that appeared in the Boise Weekly a year ago. It said in part:

Idaho is one of a handful of states that allows a complete religious exemption from the obligation to provide a child medical care, even if it results in death. The laws effectively create a religious defense against manslaughter because "criminal injury to a child" cannot be charged in cases of religion-based medical
neglect….The Idaho Legislature passed its religious exemption laws in a no-fuss 1972 session. The bill was one of several enacted across the nation in quick succession thanks to pressure from Washington, D.C. It stemmed from two powerful Christian Scientist aides within the Nixon Administration, H.R. Haldeman and John D. Ehrlichman, who pushed religious exemptions into the Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act…

OK, that was helpful. I also found a 2015 article from Al Jazeera that explained why Idahoans believe as they do. 

Also, my co-GetReligionista Mark Kellner reminds me that the Christian Science movement helped get these religious exemption laws passed way back when. A national spokesman for Christian Science is from Idaho. And tmatt has written about holes in coverage of faith healers in Pennsylvania, so the Spokane paper is not alone in coming up short. 

As it turns out, the bill died later Tuesday in the state Senate and a cogent piece by the Associated Press and an Idaho TV outlet explains why. The Boise Weekly also offered its take on it. 

I appreciate the Spokesman-Review for covering a religious issue but it would have been helpful to have notified us that more children die in Idaho than any other state of sicknesses that could have been cured by medical help, but weren’t because of religious reasons. 

I’m also interested if it’s just the FoC who are the main villains in this story or are there any Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Scientists around who have similar views on medical treatment. According to a public radio station out of Boise State University, Idaho and Virginia are the only states with faith healing exemptions for neglect and abuse and manslaughter laws.

Personally, the whole thing puzzles me. I’ve spent several years researching Pentecostal serpent handlers in Appalachia and although they believe in God’s healing power, they also believe that you have to be at least 18 years old to refuse medical help, should you get bit by a venomous snake. No one younger than that is allowed to handle the deadly reptiles and yes, these believers take their kids to the doctor. I am curious why these Idahoans see things differently.

If you're interested in hearing more, ProtectIdahoKids.org will give you some background (one of their photos is featured on this site) as will voactiv.com. I did not find a site defending faith healers but the Oregonian had plenty of coverage two weeks ago about the FoC in that state.  The Portland newspaper has been following this group for at least 20 years.

I wish the Spokane paper had given us some of these details. Just know as journalists, that when it comes to reporting on complex religion-and-the-law topics, no amount of explanation is too little.  

 

 

Categories: Main

Do the media have a 'conscience?' Not when it comes to foster care and religious liberty in Texas

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Texas' next religious liberty fight could be over foster care. https://t.co/woDfGSaJu4 pic.twitter.com/ae0mzdqdtB

— Texas Tribune (@TexasTribune) March 21, 2017

My parents, Bob and Judy Ross, served for 25 years as houseparents at Christ's Haven for Children, a Christian child-care ministry based in Keller, Texas.

Mom and Dad lost count of the exact number of children for whom they cared. Some came into their home and stayed just a few days. Others they raised from preschool through high school graduation. In all, more than 250 girls lived in my parents’ cottage.

My mother said she and Dad always wanted a mission to lead people to Jesus Christ. At Christ’s Haven, they found it. They studied the Bible with all the girls in their care, and Dad baptized many of them, as I noted in a Christian Chronicle column in 2007.

I couldn't help but recall my parents' experience as I read a Texas Tribune story this week proclaiming that "Texas' next religious liberty fight could be over foster care":

You can’t talk about religious liberty in Texas without mentioning Lester Roloff.In the 1970s, Roloff, a Baptist preacher, was known for his homes for teenagers in Corpus Christi. A 1973 legislative report on child care in the state said members heard testimony from children previously in Roloff's Rebekah Home for Girls about irregular meals and whippings. Roloff told lawmakers his homes should be exempted from state interference due to his religious roots.“We spanked them because God loves them, and we love them,” Roloff told the committee.Those hearings led to the Legislature passing Senate Bill 965 in 1975, which established child care licensing laws in the state.Now, 42 years later, Texas legislators are considering sharpening religious protections for faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster and adoptive homes and oversee their care. Critics say this could give religious groups license to use their faith as a reason to refuse to place foster children with gay couples or with families with certain religious beliefs. Legislators say this could halt bipartisan warmth on bills changing how Texas cares for abused and neglected children.

In the lede, the Texas Tribune sets a negative tone on the legislation right away — and that critical theme dominates the story. Besides the bill's author, the "nonpartisan media organization" quotes six sources. Five of them voice concerns about the bill. You get the (not-so-balanced) picture.

The bill itself (read the full text here) addresses "the conscience rights of certain religious organizations and individuals." However, guess what word never appears in the Tribune story? If you said "conscience," you win the prize.

This, too, is a topic we've addressed repeatedly:

By the time U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage ... conscience claims by religious people who view marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman already were making frequent national headlines.Of course, in most media reports on those claims — before and after the high court's 5-4 ruling — the word "conscience" never appeared. Rather, news organizations such as the Los Angeles Times framed the issue as a matter of Christians wanting to "deny service" or "refuse service." Often, news stories on the subject carried scare quotes around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom" — a journalistic eyebrow raising, if you will.

Give the Texas Tribune credit for not using scare quotes around religious liberty.

However, the outlet does feel compelled to set aside "sincerely held religious beliefs," as you'll notice as the story continues:

Rep. James Frank, R-Wichita Falls, vice chairman of the House Human Services Committee, has authored House Bill 3859, which would protect faith-based providers from retaliation if they assert their “sincerely held religious beliefs” while caring for abused and neglected children.The bill would include allowing faith-based groups to deny a placement if it’s against their religious beliefs; place a child in a religion-based school; deny referrals for abortion-related contraceptives, drugs or devices; and refuse to contract with other organizations that go against their religious beliefs.Frank said the his bill is meant to give “reasonable accommodations” for faith-based groups and not meant to be exclusionary. He said the ultimate goal is to help find the right home for kids.Faith-based organizations are closing their doors to foster children “because they can’t afford to stay in business when they’re getting sued on stuff,” Frank said. “They’re basically being told to conform or get out on stuff that’s important but it’s not core to taking care of foster homes.”

The Tribune casts the issue as relating to "faith-based groups the state hires to place children in foster homes." The bill refers to providers operating "under governmental authority to refer or place children."

I wonder after reading both the story and the legislation: Does this bill concern only faith-based groups that receive state contracts? Or does it extend to the operations of privately funded religious groups seeking state licensing? The distinction would appear to be important, but I'll acknowledge my ignorance when it comes to the intricacies of how the system works in Texas.

In a Christianity Today story way back in 2011, I noted:

Just a few years ago, a key question in the public square was: Would gay and unmarried couples be allowed to adopt children or serve as foster parents?Now, the question seems to be: Can faith-based agencies with conscientious objections refuse to place children with gay and unmarried couples?"It's a question of: Can religious organizations continue to operate for the public good in a way that's consistent with their convictions?" said Jedd Medefind, president of the Christian Alliance for Orphans.

I'd love to see the Texas Tribune — and other major news organizations in the Lone Star State — delve deeper and provide a fuller, fairer portrait of faith-based foster care and adoption providers and the issues at stake.

 

Categories: Main

The Daily Beast digs into case of a generic 'youth pastor' who preyed on young boys

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

It's a truth your GetReligionistas have discussed many times. When you are covering a story about people linked to a faith with a clearly defined hierarchy it's pretty clear who you are supposed to call.

I'm not just talking about Roman Catholics. If a United Methodist pastor gets in trouble, there is a clear regional and national structure linked to the work of the clergy. Southern Baptist congregations are part of regional associations, state conventions and then they have ties of various kinds to the national Southern Baptist Convention. You have some place to start digging.

But when a minister goes REALLY off the tracks, it's hard -- especially in the world of nondenominational, independent evangelicalism or Pentecostalism -- to find a paper trail anywhere, along with people who were responsible for supervising the work of this or that clergyperson. And what about people who were only "sort of" clergy?

I thought of all of that while reading this recent piece at The Daily Beast that had this genuinely hellish tabloid headline: "UNHOLY: Pastor Arrested for Chopping Up Teen Kept Counseling Kids for 23 Years."

Now, in terms of facts linked to church life, the key word in that headline is "pastor."

When you hear "pastor," you kind of assume that we are talking about an individual who has gone to seminary, been ordained and has a pulpit somewhere in a church. Pastors fill a specific leadership role in a specific faith community, one with a tradition of some kind (even if its an independent local congregation). You hear "associate pastor" and you think someone who carries out a specific ministry, working in a larger church that has a senior pastor in the pulpit.

Now in this case, things are much murkier and the Daily Beast team never offers readers a clear look at the facts, in terms of the man at the heart of this nightmare. Once we make it past the mysteries linked to the sniffing dog and the headless torso, what we get is this:

Fred Laster, 16, was last seen with local youth pastor Ron Hyde several days earlier. Laster hitched a ride with Hyde after a family argument, according to his sister. Laster and his five siblings were living with their elderly grandparents at the time, after their mom died from cancer four years earlier.When Laster called his twin sister later, the boy “sounded distant, emotional,” she told police. She asked Laster if he was alright and he said he was with Hyde. It was the last she ever heard from him.Meanwhile, Hyde has worked as a youth pastor for the past 23 years. In that time, authorities and a local mother believe he may have preyed on other boys like Laster.

Now, what is a "youth pastor"?

The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. In my experience, a youth pastor may or may not have seminary training, may or may not be ordained and may or may not be working full-time on a church staff.

In a mystery of this kind, when part of the story is that a church leader has done a terrible thing, these kinds of details matter. You see, the question lurking in the background is this: Who was responsible for stopping this monster? What institution?

Readers are clearly told that Hyde has "worked as a youth pastor for the past 23 years."

Maybe, maybe not. Later in the story there is this:

60 years old at the time of his arrest, Hyde still worked as a faith-based mental health counselor. In his decades of freedom, the accused murderer has been in frequent contact with children. The FBI said Hyde had been a suspect in at least one previous child exploitation case.“He’s travelled frequently throughout the United States and abroad. During the course of this homicide investigation, we determined that Hyde was a named subject in a previous international child exploitation case,” Charles Spencer, an FBI spokesperson said in a statement to press. “We’ve also learned that through his various positions and jobs in the Jacksonville area, he had the potential for additional child victims, because he had access to children in multiple positions he held throughout the area.”

So he had been a youth pastor all this time in multiple positions with local churches? He was a "faith-based counselor"?

Actually, it appears that was not the case. Most of his work was as a counselor with a wide array of institutions, both secular and religious. In other words, it appears that he may have rarely held a job linked to church ministry.

Remember that word "pastor"? Well, this guy appears to have had secular day jobs paid with tax-payer dollars.

There are more hints on this angle in this complicated passage in the Daily Beast feature, which finally mentions a church.

As a mental health counselor at Crosswater Community Church, Hyde advertised classes on “standing up to bullies,” as well as addiction counseling for “sex, pornography and relationships,” he wrote on his professional page. “If you’re ready to make a change, I can show you how.The church where Hyde worked says they are cooperating with law enforcement.“We are working and cooperating fully with the FBI in their investigation of Ron Hyde,” Pastor Jack Millwood of Crosswater Community Church told a local NBC affiliate. “I am personally not aware of any victims of Ron Hyde that involve anyone associated with Crosswater. If any person or persons has any information regarding potential victims of Ron Hyde, please contact the local FBI office.”

Now, watch the video at the top of this post. It appears that Hyde was someone to whom the ordained leaders of this independent congregation referred people when they needed the help of a professional, licensed counselor.

Looking at coverage elsewhere, the original text of a local ABC television affiliate report noted that Hyde had:

Several connections, as a licensed counselor ... in Jacksonville, Fla., and even state institutions. Church staff noted that he was not on the church payroll, but was linked to the church through referrals for professional counseling.

Thus, is it accurate to say that Hyde worked "at" this church? To say that Crosswater was the church "where he worked" implies, at least to me, that he was a member of the staff. When you call Hyde a "pastor" who worded "at" a particular church, the implication is that he is an ordained minister on the staff of that congregation.

Was that the case? Are we actually talking about a man who has ever served as an ordained minister at a local church, let alone as a "pastor" who led a congregation?

Based on the facts in that story, it would appear not.

None of my objections, in this case, have anything to do with lessening the horrors of Hyde's acts. I would also assume that it was just as hard for the Daily Beast to learn key details about this man's murky past as it would have been for the leaders at Crosswater church to have studied his background, as an licensed counselor with his own practice.

So here is the bottom line: Why is the word "pastor" in that bloody headline?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

5Q: Talking religion, news and the ties that bind with Rod Dreher, author of 'The Benedict Option'

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Longtime GetReligion readers will recognize the name of Rod Dreher as that of an frequently mentioned longtime "friend of this blog."

Many will also recognize Dreher as the author of the much discussed (check out this search) book called "The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation," published last week by Sentinel. The basic thesis: orthodox Christians -- small "o" and capital "O" -- need to form tight-knit communities to preserve the values in the face of a post-modern onslaught.

The Atlantic suggests Dreher "writes with resentment." The once-upon-a-time evangelical Rachel Held Evans weighed in, via Twitter to say the book's premise "is based on fantasy."

This post isn't about that. I'll leave GetReligionistas such as tmatt to comment on the book and the surrounding media mentions. We wanted to ask this veteran reporter a few questions about religion news.

Instead, here's what Dreher had to say in response to our noted "5Q+1." However, since he passed over the "do you have anything else to say" query, it's just 5Qs:

(1) Where do you get your news about religion? 

From the Internet. I read websites like First Things, Mere Orthodoxy, Mosaic, Real Clear Religion and The Atlantic, but also mainstream news sites like The New York Times, the Washington Post and others. I find that I'm increasingly dependent on Twitter feeds from key people to pass on news to me. I'm thinking about Mollie Hemingway, Ross Douthat, Michael Brendan Dougherty, Damon Linker, Andrew T. Walker, Russell Moore and Denny Burk. But there are others.

(2) What is the most important religion story the MSM doesn't get?

They are completely missing the ramifications of sociologist Christian Smith's findings about the religious illiteracy among American Christians, which is driving America's steady de-Christianization. As Smith and his colleagues have pointed out repeatedly, what they term "Moralistic Therapeutic Deism" is the de facto faith of American young people. I would add of Americans, period.

When I interviewed him for my new book "The Benedict Option," I asked Smith about the de-Christianization of America. He said, "America has lived a long time off its thin Christian veneer, partly necessitated by the Cold War. That is all finally being stripped away by the combination of mass consumer capitalism and liberal individualism."

True, there has been a lot of coverage about the rise of the Nones, but what's missing is a comprehensive, in-depth look at the nature of de-Christianization, and what it looks like in different parts of the country, and in different demographic groups. There are so many aspects to this story. What is a de-Christianized America going to be like?

When I moved to Philadelphia in 2010, a friend of mine, a native Catholic who was plugged in to the archdiocesan leadership, walked me around showing me big buildings that were part of the Archdiocese. He said to me, "By the time my kids are my age, all of this will be gone." So many American Christians have no idea what's coming.

(3) What's the story you will be watching carefully in the next year or two?

I'll be watching very carefully the religious liberty battle. Specifically, I'm going to keep an eye on how the Trump Justice Department makes and enforces policy. I'll be more interested, though, in seeing how Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity (SOGI) laws make it through legislatures and the courts.

Similarly, I'm going to watch how successfully religious schools defend themselves in court when they are sued over alleged anti-LGBT discrimination.

(4) Why is it important for journalists to understand the role of religion in our world today?

Religion is most fundamentally about the sacred narratives that bind a culture. "Religare" is Latin for "to bind". Its absence within a society means that society will sooner or later fragment or dissolve, because it will have lost its story. In this sociological sense, I suppose you could say that secularism is a religion, inasmuch as it has its own narratives that it considers axiomatic.

If journalists understood religion better, they would be better able to understand why people do the things they do, even when they don't make sense to seculars. They would also come to understand why their own worldview is essentially religious, even though they typically cannot see it -- and why so many of us religious believers see its supposed neutrality as a sham.

The lack of religious understanding among journalists has made for terrible, ill-informed, simplistic, and even bigoted coverage of the long fight over same-sex marriage, and now transgenderism. This issue is the one above all others in which the "sacred secularism" of journalists warps their ability to comprehend and faithfully reproduce the story fairly, accurately, and completely.

(5) What is the funniest, most ironic twist that you have seen in a religion news story lately? 

Well, I don't know if this is funny, though people like me, with dark senses of humor, may find it so. I always find it absurd to read the general coverage of Islam in America. Most American journalists fall all over themselves to present their subjects in a sympathetic light. Yet if they were writing about American Christians who held the same retrograde beliefs ("retrograde" by a secular liberal's standards), the coverage would almost certainly be very different.

What this reflects is the bad habit of American journalists to project their own culture-war commitments onto the people they cover. To many of them, Muslims can only ever be victims of bigots, usually Christian bigots. Of course Muslims sometimes are exactly that. The problem is that journalists are not dealing with Muslims as real, complex people, but as screens upon which to project their own sympathies. I think this is also true, but in a reverse way, when it comes to journalists covering conservative forms of Christianity.

GetReligion's Terry Mattingly once floated an Ur-principle of American journalism: "The Religious Right must lose." It's interesting to observe how often you can tell how a reporter is going to cover a particular story that has to do with religion or values by applying that principle. This is how you get a situation I witnessed myself in a news meeting, in which the suggestion that the paper ought to cover more closely the radical teachings at a local mosque was met by a key newsroom editor by this statement: "We're always hearing about what radical Muslims are doing. What about Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson?!"

It's just nuts. The enemy of my enemy is my friend is the operative strategy here. I guess I find it funny that so many American journalists pride themselves on their tolerance and open-mindedness, when what they're really doing is arranging their prejudices.

Categories: Main

A holy ghost? Why an Idaho couple with conjoined twins decided against aborting their babies

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Is there a holy ghost in the story of an Idaho couple who decided against aborting their babies?

I've been wondering about that since I first read a front-page Houston Chronicle story earlier this month about the Torres family's experience:

Dad held the babies upright on his chest, patting them and swaying, while Mom crammed the last bag between a cooler of donated breast milk and a new portable crib.“Well,” Chelsea Torres said, closing the trunk and turning to her husband, Nick, “it all fits.”That was the easy part.What lay ahead was far more daunting.Leaving the hospital with a newborn is a moment no parent is ready for. What if the baby screams in the car? What if she won’t take a bottle once you get home? Chelsea, 24, and Nick, 23, have an even darker worry: What if the girls don’t survive the drive?The doctors assured them everything should be fine, but it’s hard to shake that fear. They’ve carried it for months, ever since the doctor back in Idaho told them Chelsea was pregnant with conjoined twins. Ever since they decided to ignore his recommendation to have an abortion. Ever since they loaded their 3-year-old son, Jaysin, into their Kia Optima six months ago and drove 25 hours to Houston.“I’ve been dreading the return,” said Nick, dark circles under his eyes after days with little sleep. “I’m just glad we’re making it with two healthy babies.”

My question is simple: Why? 

Why did the couple choose not to have an abortion? Were religious beliefs a factor? The Chronicle story that I read did not explain their thinking, so I Googled in hopes of finding more background.

I came across a more in-depth Houston Press story as well an Idaho State Journal feature from months ago, but neither fully answered my question.

The Idaho paper noted:

One doctor said the babies only had a 20 to 30 percent chance of surviving, while another gave them better odds but also warned that there was a high probability they wouldn’t make it to full term.The couple was given the option to terminate the pregnancy early on.“When we got home, it hit like bricks. We thought about it. We left it open for three days,” Chelsea said, adding that she cried that whole time.But in the end, they never really could consider that option, she said.

That sounds like the decision was more personal than theological — but then again, the paper never specifically addresses the family's religious background or lack thereof.

In a follow-up story published this week, the State Journal describes the 2-month-old twins' progress as "a miracle":

Chelsea and Nick Torres were able to move back to Eastern Idaho this month with not only their young son, but also their newly born twin daughters.That’s a miracle for the former Blackfoot couple that didn’t know if their twins, Callie and Carter, who are conjoined, would even make it through their birth.But the twins were delivered safely at a hospital in Houston, Texas, on Jan. 30, and they were doing better than anyone expected.“Everyone was surprised,” Chelsea said, adding that Carter needed a little oxygen when she was delivered, but that was likely because the girls were taken by Cesarean section. “The doctors told us most C-section babies need a little air.”

Again, the latest State Journal story refers to the couple's decision against an abortion and the parents' determination "to give their unborn daughters a fighting chance at life." But why were they so determined to bring their children into the world?

Is there any possibility that religion played a role? Faith has not come up in any of the various stories I've read.

But am I absolutely certain that it's not a factor? No. 

I sure wish some enterprising reporter would ask.

Categories: Main

Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Maybe it's time to cue the theme from "Jaws" at copy desks in major newsrooms.

We are halfway through the season of Lent, and you know what that means. Once again, we are approaching the most important days on the Christian calendar, as in Holy Week and Easter. Editors should note that Easter in the West (Gregorian calendar) and Pascha in the churches of the East (the older Julian calendar) are on the same date this year.

This time of year is dangerous for editors because the odds rise that they will need to handle news stories that are supposed to contain accurate references to church history and basic Christian beliefs. This has, in the past, been a challenge in some newsroom, even at the most elite levels of the news food chain. Take, for example, the New York Times and its ongoing struggle with the details of the Resurrection.

This brings us to an Associated Press news feature about the efforts to restore the main shrine in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. See if you can spot the problem here:

JERUSALEM (AP) -- The tomb of Jesus has been resurrected to its former glory.Just in time for Easter, a Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven.Gone is the unsightly iron cage built around the shrine by British authorities in 1947 to shore up the walls. Gone is the black soot on the shrine's stone façade from decades of pilgrims lighting candles. And gone are fears about the stability of the old shrine, which hadn't been restored in more than 200 years.

Did you see the problem?

I'll give you a second chance, because this error was repeated in the tag line for the main AP photograph that ran with the feature. It's probably safe to say this photo description was based on the story, not the other way around.

The renovated Edicule is seen in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, traditionally believed to be the site of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, in Jerusalem's old city Monday, Mar. 20, 2017. A Greek restoration team has completed a historic renovation of the Edicule, the shrine that tradition says houses the cave where Jesus was buried and rose to heaven. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

OK, I know that this is complicated. Maybe there needs to be an expanded entry in the Associated Press Stylebook covering the events of Holy Week, Easter and the Ascension?

Attention AP corrections desk: Christians around the world do not believe that Jesus was "buried and rose to heaven" from the tomb cut into the stone of Golgotha. They believe that he was buried there, was resurrected, then ascended to heaven 40 days later. Church tradition points to Mount Olivet as the site of the Ascension.

Let me stress that there is plenty of interesting and valid material in this AP report, once you work your way past the messed up reference to the Resurrection. The factual information about the restoration work is fascinating, even to someone like me who has visited this shrine twice. Here is some background:

The limestone and marble structure stands at the center of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, one of the world's oldest churches -- a 12th-century building standing on 4th-century remains. The shrine needed urgent attention after years of exposure to environmental factors like water, humidity and candle smoke.Three main Christian denominations jealously guard separate sections of the church, but they put aside their longstanding religious rivalries to give their blessing for the restoration. In 2015, Israeli police briefly shut down the building after Israel's Antiquities Authority deemed it unsafe, and repairs began in June 2016.A restoration team from the National Technical University of Athens stripped the stone slabs from the shrine's façade and patched up the internal masonry of the shrine, injecting it with tubes of grout for reinforcement. Each stone slab was cleaned of candle soot and pigeon droppings, then put back in place. Titanium bolts were inserted into the structure for reinforcement, and frescos and the shrine's painted dome were given a face-lift.

While doing repairs inside the tomb, workers were allowed to carefully work their way through several layers of history. The wording here is careful, some would say skeptical, but this is the language of secular history and journalism.

On Oct. 26, the team entered the inner sanctum of the shrine, the burial chamber of Jesus, and temporarily slid open an old marble layer covering the bedrock where Jesus' body is said to have been placed.Below the outer marble layer was a white rose marble slab engraved with a cross, which the team dated to the late Crusader period of the 14th century. Beneath that marble slab was an even older, grey marble slab protecting the bedrock, and mortar on the slab dates to the 4th century, when Roman Emperor Constantine ordered the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built.The restorers have cut a small window from the shrine's marble walls for pilgrims to see -- for the first time -- the bare stone of the ancient burial cave."It seems we are in front of levels of history that are validated," said Antonia Moropoulou, who supervised the renovation.

Concerning the error at the top of the story: AP editors will need to print a correction on that. I would urge them to be careful when doing so. After all, the highly skilled corrections desk team at The New York Times didn't cover itself with glory when correcting a similar error a few years ago.

Let's flash back to a GetReligion post about that. (See also this classic piece at The Federalist, in which M.Z. Hemingway digs into her GetReligionista roots.)

The New York Times published a fairly straightforward story about Pope Francis' first Urbi et Orbi message. With this paragraph:Easter is the celebration of the resurrection into heaven of Jesus, three days after he was crucified, the premise for the Christian belief in an everlasting life. In urging peace, Francis called on Jesus to ''change hatred into love, vengeance into forgiveness, war into peace.''Yes, the professionals at The New York Times are confused about what Easter marks. If you were satirizing the poor state of the Grey Lady's understanding of religion, this would seem over-the-top. And yet it's real. My favorite part is the correction to the piece -- yes, it was corrected to drop the "into heaven" and replace it with "from the dead." The correction is:An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the Christian holiday of Easter. It is the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection from the dead, not his resurrection into heaven.To be clear, not only is Easter not about Jesus' "resurrection into heaven," Christians don't believe Jesus "resurrected into heaven" -- period.

All of this reminds me of a piece of "laugh to keep from crying" satire on this topic. I believe this was written by Mollie Hemingway, but an old link to the original source has gone dead. Can you imagine a great newspaper like the Times needing to run a correction like this?

In last Thursday’s story, “Americans excited to visit ‘ball parks,’” the sport of baseball was repeatedly spelled bayspall. The number of ‘bases’ was given as five; the correct number is three. “Home plate” is a marker embedded in the ground, not a trophy awarded to the winner of the World Series. “Babe” Ruth was the popular nickname of George Herman Ruth Jr. (1895–1948), generally regarded the greatest baseballer of the early twentieth century, and not the African-American mistress of Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter F. O’Malley as stated in the article. The Times regrets the errors.

Hang on. There are plenty of complicated religious holidays just ahead on the calendar.

Categories: Main

The real Muslims of Hawaii: WSJ digs below the surface after Trump's travel ban blocked

Monday, March 20, 2017

In Hawaii, a small Muslim community makes its voice heard in opposing Trump’s travel ban https://t.co/MIAUXOT0DX pic.twitter.com/hIHUG3D5H9

— WSJ U.S. News (@WSJusnews) March 17, 2017

After a federal judge in Hawaii blocked President Donald Trump's revised executive order on immigration and refugees, the Wall Street Journal dispatched Los Angeles-based national religion writer Ian Lovett to Honolulu.

Talk about a tough assignment! (And, by the way, could you please sign me up?)

In my time with The Christian Chronicle, I've been blessed to report from all 50 states and 10 countries. This probably won't surprise you, but the Aloha State was one of my favorite to visit.

I don't know if Lovett got to spend any time at the beach or if he was too busy working, but his excellent feature captures the mood — and concerns — of the island state's Muslims in the Trump era.

The lede explains Hawaii's surprising role in the controversy:

HONOLULU — With only a few thousand Muslim residents, Hawaii would seem an unlikely place to challenge — and halt — President Donald Trump’s travel ban.Only a half-dozen of refugees are settled here each year. The small Muslim community has quietly thrived, away from the conflicts on the mainland. They built a mosque in the hills overlooking Waikiki, celebrated the end of Ramadan on the beach and enjoyed good relationships with neighbors in this multicultural state. Anti-Islamic threats or hate speech was virtually unheard of, Muslims here say.But all of that has abruptly changed in recent weeks, as Hawaii’s Muslim community has found itself at the center of the nationwide battle over immigration and Islam’s place in American society.Anti-Muslim incidents have jumped since late last year, Muslims here say, and members of the community have been separated from their families by Mr. Trump’s travel ban.The state of Hawaii—along with the imam at the mosque here, Ismail Elshikh—sued to stop the revised ban from taking effect, saying it was motivated by religious animus toward Muslims. On Wednesday night, a federal judge agreed and put the order on hold.

From there, the Journal does a really nice job of quoting Muslims in Hawaii and letting them describe their own experiences. The piece puts real faces on the random Muslims we hear so much about.

I wish the narrative that anti-Muslim incidents are up was less squishy — with more concrete statistics and confirmation by authorities. But to Lovett's credit, he quotes a Honolulu police spokeswoman concerning two incidents and notes that other cases — "small expressions of hate" — have not risen to the level of reportable crimes. Sometimes, anecdotal evidence is the only kind available.

Certainly, the Journal avoids the kind of overreach seen in many "Islamophobia" reports.

All in all, it's a great piece of quick-hit journalism.

To Lovett and the Journal, I say: Mahalo!

Categories: Main

CNN on Gorsuch: Is the judge a crypto-Catholic or a safe, normal Episcopalian?

Monday, March 20, 2017

Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Judge Neil Gorsuch begin today, so get set for some good TV.

A few journalists are still trying to get to the bottom of the form and content of Gorsuch’s religious views. Is he truly an Episcopalian or some kind of crypto-Catholic? Is he conservative or liberal? What are his views on abortion?

The latest effort, from CNN, assembles together what a lot of journalists have written about the nominee’s faith plus a few details the reporter found out on his own. The headline: “What is Neil Gorsuch’s religion? It’s complicated” hints at what's to come. We start here:

WASHINGTON (CNN) Earlier this month, the Trump administration summoned two dozen religious leaders to a private meeting. The mission: to rally support for Neil Gorsuch, Trump's Supreme Court nominee…Eventually, the conversation turned to Gorsuch's own religious background.He was raised Catholic but now worships with his wife and two daughters at St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder, Colorado. Like the city, the congregation is politically liberal. It bars guns from its campus and installed solar panels; it condemns harsh rhetoric about Muslims and welcomes gays and lesbians. And its rector, the Rev. Susan Springer, attended the Women's March in Denver, though not as a form of protest but as a sign of support for "the dignity of every human being."

It goes a lot into his early life as a child in a Catholic family and then:

After college and law school, between stints clerking at the Supreme Court, Gorsuch studied legal philosophy at Oxford University in England, where his dissertation was supervised by John Finnis, a giant in the field and a former member of the Vatican's prestigious International Theological Commission.Among laypeople, Finnis may be best known for his expositions on natural law, an often-misunderstood area of legal and moral philosophy.

The article then veers into a discussion of natural law. But isn’t Oxford where Gorsuch switched from the Catholic to the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Communion or, in the United States, the Episcopal Church? Writing about Gorsuch a few weeks ago, I included information on this point thanks to a helpful piece in the Daily Mail that connected the dots. 

However the CNN piece -- this is crucial -- suggests the Brits are wrong and that the judge never changed faiths.

When Neil Gorsuch returned from his studies in Oxford, he came home a married man. His British-born wife, Louise, was raised in the Church of England. As the new family settled in Vienna, Virginia, they joined Holy Comforter, an Episcopal parish.According to church records, the Gorsuches were members of Holy Comforter from 2001 to 2006, when they moved to Colorado. But on membership forms, Neil listed his religion as Catholic, and there is no record that he formally joined the Episcopal Church, said the Rev. Lyndon Shakespeare, Holy Comforter's interim rector.

I used to live one suburb over from Holy Comforter, which was –- and probably still is -- a middle-of-the-road Episcopal parish. The Episcopal Diocese of Virginia had a large selection of nearby evangelical and charismatic parishes (Truro Church, The Falls Church and Church of the Apostles, for starters), so if the Gorsuchs were of that persuasion, they had ample opportunity to choose one. People drove from all over northern Virginia to attend those churches, so the fact that the Gorsuches stayed at Holy Comforter speaks volumes.

Yes, if Gorsuch had become Episcopalian, there’s a small reception ritual one goes through with the local bishop plus it would have been noted on parish records somewhere that he had joined up.

The article then makes the case that the couple’s attendance at Episcopal churches is because of what Louise Gorsuch wants.

When the Gorsuch family moved to Colorado, they joined St. John's, where they have been active in Sunday services. Louise is a lay reader, the couple's two daughters likewise assist in the liturgy as acolytes and Neil has been an usher.Friends and family say Louise Gorsuch has an affinity for the liturgy and music at St. John's, finding in it an echo of her upbringing in the Church of England…

The reporter then makes the case that Gorsuch is not an Episcopalian at all.

Springer said she doesn't know whether Gorsuch considers himself a Catholic or an Episcopalian."I have no evidence that Judge Gorsuch considers himself an Episcopalian, and likewise no evidence that he does not."Gorsuch's younger brother, J.J., said he too has "no idea how he would fill out a form. He was raised in the Catholic Church and confirmed in the Catholic Church as an adolescent, but he has been attending Episcopal services for the past 15 or so years."(Michael) Trent, Gorsuch's close friend, said he believes Gorsuch would consider himself "a Catholic who happens to worship at an Episcopal church."

Those of us are Episcopalian know the membership standards are not stringent.

Gorsuch could also call himself an Episcopalian if he meets the church's minimum standards for membership: Being baptized Christian, receiving Holy Communion at least three times a year and supporting the church through prayer and financial donations."The intent here is key," said the Rev. Thomas Ferguson, an Episcopal priest and an expert on its relationships with other churches. "If he intends to be an Episcopalian he could certainly be considered one."This may seem academic, but the religious composition of the Supreme Court is closely watched by many believers…

Read the article yourself to see the delicious quote by Richard Land (a politically astute Southern Baptist) at the end. The possibility that Gorsuch is an inactive Catholic is sure an interesting one and may be accurate. However, there are factual questions that journalists could be asking. For example: Is he is receiving Holy Communion in his current Episcopal parish? Is he slipping away to Mass at a church in Boulder or elsewhere?

The fact that he attends an Episcopal parish tells me that there is a really good chance that he no longer thinks like a Catholic. It also tells me that while his legal philosophy is quite similar to that of the late Justice Antonin Scalia, his moral philosophy may be quite different.

That may not mollify Democrats much, but for reporters, that’s an important distinction to know. 

Categories: Main

Chaos in Trump White House! But it has nothing to do with fights over culture and religion!

Monday, March 20, 2017

The big news in The Washington Post this weekend? The headline! "Inside Trump’s White House, New York moderates spark infighting and suspicion."

This was a shocker built on two stunning revelations.

First, did you know that Donald Trump -- who has surrounded himself with chaos at every stage of his public life -- has created a White House staff that appears to exist in a constant state of chaos? Shocking! As many has noted, Trump has always said that he enjoys hearing a wide range of viewpoints, even if that creates conflict, knowing that he gets to make the final decision.

Then there was shocker No. 2: Did you know that the style, priorities and values of "moderate" (a label that in elite media-speak means, "good guys in this context") New Yorkers are often different kinds of people than the populist and cultural conservatives who live in red-zip-code America? Can you imagine?!

Now, when you look at this buzz-producing Post political thriller from a GetReligion perspective it contains one more stunning revelation: Apparently these chaotic clashes are rooted in personalities and pure political gamesmanship and have nothing to do with hot-button issues linked to culture and religion!

At least, that is how things play out when the script is written by the pros at the Post political desk. Here is the overture and how-we-did-it summary for this feature:

Inside the White House, they are dismissed by their rivals as “the Democrats.”Outspoken, worldly and polished, this coterie of ascendant Manhattan business figures-turned-presidential advisers is scrambling the still-evolving power centers swirling around President Trump.Led by Gary Cohn and Dina Powell -- two former Goldman Sachs executives often aligned with Trump’s elder daughter and his son-in-law -- the group and its broad network of allies are the targets of suspicion, loathing and jealousy from their more ideological West Wing colleagues.

Of course, the daughter and the son-in-law have already been hailed as the voices of urbane reason when it comes to issues of "religious liberty" -- they probably even put that ordinary First Amendment term inside scare quotes -- and sexual liberty. Also note that the Post team believes that this camp of "Democrats" does not have a strong ideology and its members are not prone to fits of suspicion, loathing and jealousy, while their opponents struggle with all of that.

Let's keep reading.

On the other side are the Republican populists driving much of Trump’s nationalist agenda and confrontations, led by chief strategist Stephen K. Bannon, who has grown closer to Chief of Staff Reince Priebus in part to counter the New Yorkers.As Trump’s administration enters its third month, the constant jockeying and backbiting among senior staff is further inflaming tensions at a time when the White House is struggling on numerous fronts -- from the endangered health-care bill to the controversial budget to the hundreds of top jobs still vacant throughout the government.

Once again, no tensions here about issues linked to culture and social issues.

Come to think of it, readers should note that this story's only reference to Vice President Mike Pence -- the most symbolic social conservative in the Trump mix -- noted where he sat during a meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Apparently, he is irrelevant.

The anonymous voices march through this piece like flag-wavers on parade. To its credit, the Post political pros -- the alphas in this Beltway newsroom -- are very open about this.

The emerging turf war has led to fights over White House protocol and access to the president, backstabbing and leaks to reporters, and a heated Oval Office showdown over trade refereed by the president himself.This account of the internal workings of Trump’s team is based on interviews with 18 top White House officials, confidants of the president and other senior Republicans with knowledge of the relationships, many of whom requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Now, that is pretty much the end of any content in this piece that would be of interest to Americans whose primary concerns focus on moral and social issues, as opposed to the fine details of personality wars and political chess matches. It should be noted that, in a massive show of restraint, which I will praise -- the Post team did not turn this chaotic drama into a wrestling match between East Coast Jews and heartland evangelical Protestants.

Otherwise, I was left pondering this: While it appears that the Post editors were rather candid when it came to the nature of the anonymous sourcing for this piece, is it possible that, well, they didn't mention that most or all of the sources came from the New York and social libertarian side of these arguments?

Is it possible that these are the members of the Trump team that feel more comfortable sharing information and opinions with the Post political team, which has emerged as kind of the Breitbart of the grieving DC left?

Read the whole piece. Did I miss something? Is the message here, if one reads between the lines, that the religious and social conservatives who flocked (or limped, as a final resort) to Trump have already been betrayed and now play zero role in the White House? Or is that the point of view of Trump team members who are willing to meet in secret with Post people?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Strategic SBC silence: Thinking about Donald Trump, 'The Benedict Option' and more

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Hello fellow religion writers.

Hello fellow religion-news junkies.

Have you spent a good part of this past week listening to the loud and potentially strategic silence in corners of cyberspace that normally buzz with Southern Baptist Convention news and commentary? Have you been paying close attention to see when a certain feed on Twitter will return to action?

Did you notice, however, the interesting thoughts and comments on a certain post by Dwight McKissic at the SBC Voices website? That would be the one with this headline:

A HILL ON WHICH [“NOT”] TO DIE: Biographical Reflections and Ruminations on the SBC and Responses to the Graham-Moore Controversy

We are, of course, talking about the uncertainty that remains after the much-discussed meeting between the Rev. Russell Moore, the SBC's most prominent voice in Washington, D.C., and the Rev. Frank Page, leader of the convention's executive committee ("About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully' "). The two men released a "peace pipe" statement afterwards and then the silence descended over SBC land.

All of this provided the hook for this past week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in). The goal in this conversation, however, was to look at the wider themes seen in this conflict, the political and generational conflicts that are seen in many religious bodies right now, not just in America's largest Protestant flock.

With that in mind, read this passage this passage in that McKissic post, which addresses the reality that much of the SBC fighting about Moore and his work is, in reality, another sign of conflicts in American evangelicalism linked to -- and I say this carefully -- faith in Donald Trump and in his ability to keep promises. The opening reference to "Biblical Inerrancy" refers to the doctrinal fight at the heart of the great SBC civil war that began in the late 1970s.

Biblical Inerrancy was/is “A Hill on Which to Die” (which is the title of the book written by Judge Pressler detailing the inerrancy battle in the SBC). The Confederate Flag Resolution was/is not “A Hill on Which to Die.”Neither is an alignment with and official sanctioning of President Donald Trump and the Republican Party “A Hill on Which to Die.” I join with my President, Pastor Byron Day, of the National African American Fellowship of the Southern Baptist Convention in appealing for unity in the life of our Convention. Although I’m unsure of whom the target audience might have been, but I concur with a recent tweet by my friend Bob Roberts: “mixing the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of man always leads to a fake kingdom.” The SBC will morph into a “fake kingdom” if they continue this horrid love affair and identification with the Republican Party, particularly while Donald Trump is President.Tony Evans is renowned for saying, “God is not riding the backs of donkeys or elephants. He doesn’t take sides, He takes over.” God is neither Republican nor Democrat. It would be a travesty for our Convention to make a decision that would be widely and rightfully interpreted as aligning us with the Republican Party. It would be equally unwise and unholy to align the SBC with the Democratic Party.

That's blunt and to the point.

The wider issue, as I see it, rest on differences about the current state of the American soul. Many Southern Baptists (and others) led by an older generation of Religious Right leaders seem convinced that it is still possible to win the so-called culture war over faith, morality and public life -- no matter what the polls show about the beliefs of younger generations. Many younger Southern Baptists (and others) believe that it is wrong to keep focusing on politics, other than a strong push to protect religious liberty for all. They want to stress a reformation in church and family life, so that Christians in the present and future will have something to pass on to both their children and a hurting world, when it comes to faith and culture.

To tune in that side of the conflict, let me point journalists and readers toward the "Christians in the Hands of Donald Trump" column by Ross Douthat, in the New York Times, of course. Here is his more elegant statement of my earlier thesis:

Moore (and many others) spent the campaign warning that a countercultural Christianity would risk its credibility by supporting a figure like Trump for the presidency. But other leaders, mostly in the movement’s older guard, found ways to cast Trump as a heaven-sent figure, whose flaws and failings were no worse than those of a King David or a Constantine. And when Trump won, shockingly -- with strong support from conservative churchgoers, however conflicted they might have been -- the Trumpist faction claimed vindication, and among some Baptist pastors the knives came out for Moore.

But was the Trump victory a sign of lasting progress or only another symptom of the bitterness and confusion that is tearing American in half?

This brings us to a big-time reading assignment for all who want to cover the deeper themes in this national story, which is not over yet. No way.

This reversal of fortune provides the unexpected backdrop for several new books from conservative Christian writers, all written back when liberalism’s cultural-political progress seemed more inevitable (that is, last year). They include Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land: Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World” and the Providence College English professor Anthony Esolen’s “Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture.” The most talked-about title is Rod Dreher’s “The Benedict Option” (blurbed, the alert reader will note, by Russell Moore), whose arresting title references the founder of Western monasticism, St. Benedict of Nursia, and whose countercultural themes have been percolating for some time in Dreher’s prolific blogging.Each book has its own tone. Chaput’s is ruminative and strains for optimism; Esolen waxes poetic in the service of a cultural jeremiad. Dreher’s is an interesting mixture. It begins in sweeping pessimism, describing a Western Christianity foredestined to all but disappear, collapsing from within even as its institutions are regulated and taxed to death by secular inquisitors. Then it pivots to a more practical how-to guide for believers trying to build religious communities -- churches, schools, families, social networks -- that are more resilient, more rigorous and more capable of passing on the faith than much of Christianity today.

So, get to reading. And listening. In addition to this one, there are all kinds of interesting podcasts out there about these themes.

Russell Moore talks to Rod Dreher? Yes, please. Click here.

Rod Dreher in a potentially newsworthy conversation with the prominent SBC public intellectual, and Southern Baptist Seminary leader, Albert Mohler, Jr.? Yes, please. Click here.

Last, but not least, please save a few moments for this week's edition of "Crossroads." As you would imagine, I am still trying to figure out the wider news hooks in all of this.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Why is American politics so rancid? One liberal pundit blames the slide in churchgoing

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Why has U.S. politics became so rancid in tone and so harshly polarized?

Analysts have pinned the blame variously on talk radio and cable news, social media and the Internet, gerrymandering of U.S. House and state legislative districts, the Supreme Court’s campaign finance ruling, suspicion of authorities and cultural rebellion since the 1960s, a general coarsening of culture, economic woe, and much else.

Now comes prominent liberal analyst Peter Beinart with a striking thesis in the April issue of The Atlantic (which alongside its Web site has emerged as the most interesting source of religion coverage and commentary among general-interest magazine companies). He contends that what ails the fractured republic has much to do with the serious slide in church involvement over recent years.

His scenario deserves major media attention, with  responses from fellow pundits and Christian conservatives who will dislike his anti-Donald Trump slant and  resent any connection with the “race-and-nation” movement.

Beinart, who is Jewish, is an old-school New Republic editor turned journalism professor who writes for The Atlantic and others. He notes that some analysts welcomed the increase of “nones” who lack all religious affiliation, figuring this would foster greater tolerance and social harmony. Beinart’s view is precisely the opposite.

Yes, there’s more acceptance of gay marriages and legalized marijuana, he says. But the slide in organized religion is “making America’s partisan clashes more brutal” and contributes to the rise of the “alt-right,” and  “white nationalism,” pitting “us” against “them” in “even more primal and irreconcilable ways.” The older “culture war over religious morality” has been succeeded by a “more secular, more ferociously national and racial culture war” that is worse.

Beinart piles up survey research to back up that claim. For instance, the Public Religion Research Institute reports the percentage of white Republicans with no religious ties has nearly tripled since 1990. President Trump, who focused voter despair and resentment, did best with evangelicals who don’t attend church while weekly worshipers supported conservative candidates with different messages.

Surveys show “culturally conservative white Americans who are disengaged from church experience have less economic success and more family breakdown” and “grow more pessimistic and resentful.” White working class Americans without church involvement are more likely to suffer from divorce, addiction and financial distress. They share traditional aspirations about life but have trouble holding on to a job or a marriage “and otherwise forging real and abiding ties in their community.”

The bottom line: The worse they fare, the darker their view of their country.

Tolerance? Beinart says when cultural conservatives drop out of organized religion, they grow more hostile toward African Americans, Latinos and Muslims. Even hard-shell conservative churchgoers are continually taught to love thy neighbor. But “when cultural conservatives disengage from organized religion, they tend to redraw the lines of identity, deemphasizing morality and religion and emphasizing race and nation.” He sees President Trump as “both a beneficiary and a driver of that shift.”

Beinart sees effects beyond white Protestantism. Religious “nones” helped fuel the successes of the very secular Bernie Sanders’s insurgency against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment. Likewise with “Black Lives Matter,” which is far more disengaged from religionthan the older civil rights movement, and oriented more toward fueling resentments than achieving multi-racial reform.

The upshot: Whatever the ways religious involvement creates positive social effects, we find that “secularization isn’t easing political conflict. It’s making American politics even more convulsive.” And with “post-Christian” perspectives on the rise, “it’s easy to imagine American politics becoming more and more vicious.”

IMAGE: Stock graphic with a CBS News report.

Categories: Main

Beauty and the Beast: Why aren't we told why Malaysia doesn't want it?

Friday, March 17, 2017

Like almost every other parent of a child or pre-teen in America, I’m hoping to take the kiddo to “Beauty and the Beast” this weekend at some nearby theater. The Disney Channel, to which my daughter is glued every afternoon, advertises the movie during nearly every ad break, so there are probably few Americans under 13 who don’t know about its release.

Of course there’s been blowback about the “gay moment” in B&B, which apparently comes rather late in the film (after a few hints early on). So, we’ll see if my almost 12-year-old picks up anything different in that I’ve not breathed a word to her about the issue.

Meanwhile, we’ll see if I pick up anything. There were a few things said about a same-sex couple in “Finding Dory,” but they were only on for a few nanoseconds and you had to be looking for it. Also I’m hoping this PG-rated movie stays PG. I'm not looking forward to it for other reasons. Disney has a way of overloading a simple fairy tale and I've been hearing that it's overblown and overdone

Some folks overseas have an even different read on the movie, according to the Los Angeles Times, which ran this piece:

When Disney's live-action "Beauty and the Beast" debuts worldwide Thursday, Malaysia will no longer be among the invited guests.The Associated Press reported Tuesday that the company had shelved its plans for Malaysian release after film censors there approved the film after cutting out its so-called "gay moment."According to the chairman of the Film Censorship Board in Malaysia, Abdul Halim Abdul Hamid, scenes promoting homosexuality are banned in the country."We have approved it, but there is a minor cut involving a gay moment. It is only one short scene but it is inappropriate because many children will be watching this movie," Abdul Hamid told the Associated Press.

This is confusing. The film board censored the film to match up with local sensitivities, then banned it nonetheless? Odd. Why is this happening?

Up to this point, the story is a rewrite of an earlier Associated Press release. Then:

The censorship board does allow for the depiction of homosexual characters onscreen, but only if they are shown in a negative light or repent for their actions. In Malaysia, same-sex sexual activity is illegal and carries a punishment of whipping and up to 20 years in prison. 

The link in the last paragraph leads to a Huffington Post story that does a better job of explaining why Malaysians feel this way. Sharia (Islamic) law, it says, governs the country’s state courts.

It's not hard to add this small , but essential detail. This USA Today story at least states that Malaysia is “mainly Muslim” and that sodomy is punished by a 20-year prison sentence and whipping in Malaysia. It only takes one internet search to discern Islamic attitudes towards homosexuality  and it would have taken the Times one sentence to have pointed this out.

The AP story on which the Times piece is based on has a religion ghost as well; “ghost” being the religion angle to the story that got left out (in GetReligion lingo).

One wonders about the omission. Were both AP and the Times eporters truly ignorant of Malaysia’s Islamic heritage? Do any of them realize that the crescent on the Malaysian flag represents the country’s official religion? And that Malaysia has been more Islamicized by the year?

I've also heard that Kazakhstan, my daughter's birthplace and a Muslim-majority country, is also not allowing the film. I could only find one poorly translated article saying this, but a Kazakh friend of mine confirms it's not being shown for reasons similar to that of Malaysia.

It is not hard to ask such questions. Reporters only need to ask the "why" ones more often. For some reason, journalists tend to drop that "why" component in the old "who, what, when, where, why and how" news formula, if the religion in question is something other than a controversial form of Christianity.

Categories: Main

Hey media: In delving into child prostitution scandal involving senator, don't forget the church

Friday, March 17, 2017

I'm on a reporting trip to Canada and writing this post from my hotel room in Hamilton, Ontario, southwest of Toronto.

Ordinarily when I travel, I don't pay much attention to the news back home in Oklahoma City. But this week — even though I'm 1,200 miles away — I haven't been able to escape the scandal making banner headlines in my local newspaper, The Oklahoman.

The headlines concern a state senator caught up in a child prostitution scandal:

Front page of Wednesday's @TheOklahoman pic.twitter.com/fBmm4OcLO4

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) March 17, 2017

Front page of Thursday's @TheOklahoman pic.twitter.com/n0HsqdO3Hy

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) March 17, 2017

Front page of today's @TheOklahoman pic.twitter.com/iJJepxyV1c

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) March 17, 2017

Until this week, I had never heard of Shortey. Since I cover national religion news, I don't follow the key players in Oklahoma politics as closely as I did years ago when I worked for The Oklahoman.

But my 17-year-old daughter met Shortey through the YMCA’s Youth and Government organization, which lets teens participate in a program that simulates state government. My daughter, a high school senior, served as a judge in the YAG program and had meetings with Shortey and other students just recently. So she has been — for obvious reasons — distressed and sickened by this week's news (as has her father).

The Oklahoman has been all over the story — five front-page reports in three days (here, here, here, here and here) — and rightly so. Voters deserve to know what happened, and the newspaper has an important role to play in ensuring that justice is served.

And yes, there is — sadly — a religion angle, one that so far has not been pursued as much as it could be and should be.

Today's main story in The Oklahoman highlights the senator's religion — but only in a superficial way:

NORMAN — A conservative state senator who once wanted to be a missionary was accused Thursday in a child prostitution case of offering to pay a 17-year-old boy for sex.Sen. Ralph Shortey, R-Oklahoma City, was charged with three felony counts, one week after police found him with the teenager in a Moore hotel room.Gov. Mary Fallin, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb, Senate leaders and many others called Thursday for him to resign.The accusations “do not reflect the character and decorum that we expect of an elected official,” Fallin said. “It is not acceptable.”The evidence against Shortey includes a graphic online conversation where the two discuss having sex and smoking marijuana, police reported in a court affidavit. The conversation was found on the teenager’s Kindle tablet.Shortey, using the online name “Jamie Tilley,” at one point during the discussion about sex called the teenager “baby boy,” according to the affidavit.

Later, the newspaper notes:

Shortey had studied in college to do mission work in Uganda but decided to go into the oil and gas industry after having his first child. “I actually planned my life around being a missionary,” he said in a TV interview.

Believe it or not, that's it — all of the details The Oklahoman provides after introducing Shortey's faith background in the lede.

Among my questions that the paper fails to engage, much less answer: Does Shortey have a home church? If so, what do church leaders and fellow members say, if anything, about him and his arrest?

Also, what college did he attend? Does it have a religious affiliation? If so, do leaders there remember him? How do they react to the child prostitution charge? 

The Oklahoman has had full stories on fellow senators and politicians responding to the news and on random voters in his Senate district reacting to the charge. Wouldn't information about his church and religious background be equally relevant, especially given the shocking hypocrisy with which he is accused?

A quick Google search turns up Shortey's official Senate biography: 

Shortey graduated from West Moore High School in 2000, and following graduation he attended Heartland Baptist Bible College in Oklahoma City in preparation for mission work in Uganda.   In 2002, Ralph married his high school sweetheart, Jennifer and continues to make his home in south Oklahoma City with their two children, Kaitlyn and Elena.  With a growing family, Shortey decided against pursuing mission work and instead entered the oil and gas industry, working as a production consultant.

Heartland Baptist Bible College has ties to Southwest Baptist Church, an Oklahoma City megachurch that various online sources indicate is an independent Baptist church. Southwest Bible Church is included on a listing of independent Baptist churches that believe in using only the King James Version of the Bible. 

Is Shortey a member of that church? My Google review did not provide a quick answer. But given where the senator attended college, I am hopeful that reporters will do more digging. 

As I mentioned, I'm a long way from home as I type this. If I've missed media coverage that addresses the religion angle, by all means, please provide a link (or links) in the comments section.

Image via The Political Packrat

Categories: Main

St. Patrick of Ireland: It's time to make one tweak in the Religion News Service 'Splainer

Friday, March 17, 2017

The headline on a timely "'Splainer" feature from Religion News Service could not be more direct: "The ‘Splainer: Who was St. Patrick, and would he drink green beer?"

You know, or think you know, St. Patrick.

The guy with the shamrock. The cultural excuse for some of the most rowdy parties in the history of humanity, anywhere on earth where there are people who have any claim to be Irish.

Allow me a moment, along those lines, for a personal note: I am about an English as one can be, in terms of family heritage. However, my patron saint is St. Brendan of Clonfert, better known as St. Brendan the Navigator, who is another great hero of Irish Christianity. So cut me some slack on this topic.

So how does one start a news-you-can-use explainer feature about someone who is famous as a cultural figure, yet not as well known as the great Christian saint that he actual is? Let's look at the RNS overture.

Hint: My major problem with this piece is right here at the top.

For Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans, March 17 is the Feast Day of St. Patrick. For the rest of us, it’s St. Patrick’s Day -- a midweek excuse to party until we’re green in the face.But who was Patrick? Did he really drive the snakes out of Ireland or use the shamrock to explain the Trinity? Why should this fifth-century priest be remembered on this day?

OK, hold it right there.

Now, as everyone knows, there are about 1.2 billion Catholics in the world. That ancient communion goes right at the top of the list, if you are talking about feast days for St. Patrick. And it's true that there are about 85 million Anglicans in the world and, here in America, the small flock of Episcopalians is still a major player when it comes to making news. When you add up the various branches of Lutheranism, you get nearly 80 million believers.

Now, who are we missing there in this list of Christian communions that honor St. Patrick?

That would be the world's second largest Christian communion, as in the various Eastern Orthodox churches. So do the Orthodox have a feast day to honor St. Patrick?

Well, what do you know. The feast day of St. Patrick of Ireland, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland, is (wait for it) -- March 17. Let's turn to the OrthodoxWiki site and see if this sound like the great saint and missionary that we are looking for:

Our father among the saints Patrick of Ireland, Bishop of Armagh and Enlightener of Ireland, was born a Briton. Captured and brought to Ireland as a slave, he escaped and returned home. Later, he returned to Ireland, bringing Christianity to its people. His feast day is March 17.Saint Patrick was born around 390 (likely in 387), at Kilpatrick, near Dumbarton, in Scotland. His name is from the Latin Patricius, meaning high-born. His parents were part of the Christian minority of Britain; his father, Calpurnius, was a deacon, "the son of Potitus, a priest, of the village Bannavem Taburniæ."At the age of 16, he was captured during a raiding party and taken to Ireland as a slave to herd and tend sheep. During that time, he prayed frequently and came for the first time to have a true faith in God. At age 22, he had a vision in which God told him to be prepared to leave Ireland. Soon, he escaped, walking 200 miles to a ship and returning to England. In a dream, he saw the people of Ireland calling him, "We beg you, holy youth, that you shall come and shall walk again among us."

That sounds like the man.

So why leave the Orthodox out of that list? Maybe the Episcopalians and Lutherans are better known for throwing parties (at least on this particular date) than the Russians and the Greeks? That may be true, although I think the Russians and Greeks could catch up if they tried.

I realize that people don't think "Orthodox" when they hear about St. Patrick, but the many great Celtic saints from the ages before the Great Schism of 1054 actually have a lively following among the Orthodox, especially Orthodox converts in North America. Note the copy editors: Almost all of the saints before the Great Schism are claimed by churches in the West and the East.

In fact, if you look around, you might even find a St. Patrick Orthodox Parish or two. Honest.

So there needs to be a correction in this piece, in the online file copy -- because March 17 is the feast day of St. Patrick for the Orthodox, as well.

Now, back to some interesting material in the 'Splainer. The final question asks "what did he do that would make him worthy of getting a whole day dedicated to him (plus a bunch of parades and a whole lot of green beer)?

A: Short answer: Patrick was a maverick, an iconoclast, a trailblazer. And though he was high born, he never forgot the naked shepherd boy, cold and hungry and huddling on an Irish hillside. “The imagined Patrick to me is interesting as a cultural phenomenon, but not as a breathing man of faith,” said Philip Freeman, author of “St. Patrick of Ireland.” “He suffered terribly, was tormented by self-doubt, yet he always pressed forward to spread the Gospel.” He was also the first church father to speak out against the abuse of women, especially slaves. And at a time when Christian biggies like the Apostle Paul and St. Augustine never left the boundaries of the Roman Empire, Patrick was the first missionary to people considered barbarians.

Yes, there is a key word right there near the end that should be moved much higher in this piece, maybe even above the word "beer."

You see, if you created a Mt. Rushmore to honor the greatest MISSIONARIES in the history of world Christianity, St. Patrick of Ireland would almost certainly make the cut. (I would nominate St. Nina, Equal of the Apostles and Enlightener of Georgia, as well.)

So how to end this piece in honor of this great bishop, missionary and saint? With this famous prayer, of course -- a morning prayer of St. Patrick, also called the "Lorica" or "Breastplate" of St. Patrick. I know of at least one Orthodox bishop here in America who has asked that this be chanted at his funeral someday.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.
I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.
I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.
I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.
I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.
I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.
Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.
Categories: Main

The solid story that could have been: The New York Times and the Atonement

Friday, March 17, 2017

Critical thinking is the mantra of a modern humanist education. For the chattering classes, to use Matthew Arnold’s phrase, there is no higher intellectual virtue than empathy, of understanding diverse points of view, and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs.

When this ideal is met, education truly takes place. The mind -- the soul -- is broadened. But as any observer of what passes for intellectual life knows, critical thinking, as practiced by the media and academic elites, goes one way.

Recognition of cultural difference is always good, in this world view, while stereotypes are always bad. Yet few seem to be able to make the connection that stereotypes, whether good or bad, are in fact descriptions of cultural difference. The moment a writer generalizes about a culture’s or people’s distinctive qualities they are constructing a stereotype.

If pushed to explain this contradiction, the response of the modern mind is that the problem is not all stereotypes but negative stereotypes -- which means stereotypes of anyone other than white men, Evangelicals, Catholics or Americans.

In an otherwise commendable article on an abuse story from England, the New York Times offers stereotypical stock characters. While the facts are there in the story, the call to empathy, understanding diverse points of view and thinking critically about one’s own beliefs is noticeably absent.

Here’s a news flash for the New York Times: evil exists and can be found in all times, places, peoples and cultures (not just in white, upper middle class men educated at private schools and professing an evangelical Christian faith.)

Let's roll out some stereotypes. Evangelicals are sadomasochists. Catholic priests are pedophiles. Muslims are wife beaters. Jews are money grubbers. Hindus are smelly, and Mormons are Republicans. This article falls to this level of offensive stereotyping in seeking to explain the John Smyth saga.

A recent New York Times article -- “Dozens say Christian leader made British boys ‘bleed for Jesus’ ” -- recounts a story first reported in England by Channel 4 News on February 2 that subsequently received extensive coverage in the British press.

Channel 4 reported that during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, John Smyth, QC, a prominent barrister and onetime leader of director of summer camps run by the evangelical Christian Iwerne Trust that catered to boys attending Britain’s top public schools, was a sadomasochist.

Smyth befriended teenaged boys he met at the camps run by the Iwerne Trust and boys affiliated with a Christian forum at Winchester College -- an elite British public school located near his home in Hampshire. He would invite the boys to his home on weekends and developed close relationships with many, encouraging them to pursue careers in the church or military, while also propounding conservative evangelical Christian teachings.

In furtherance of these teachings, the reports allege, Smyth would beat some of the boys with a cane seeking to drive out the sin of masturbation or carnal desires.  The articles report that after one boy attempted suicide after he was invited to return to Smyth’s home, the Iwerne Trust commissioned an investigation and in 1982 found the reports to be credible. No sexual abuse was found to have occurred -- just sadomasochism.

Smyth was banned from the camps and Winchester College, and encouraged to leave the country -- eventually settling in Zimbabwe -- where he is said to have continued his criminal behavior at camps he set up. The New York Times piece reports that while the investigation concluded Smyth had engaged in criminal behavior, the police were not informed until 2013.

The article uses a different verb to describe Smyth’s departure from the UK, saying he was “sent” to Zimbabwe by the Iwerne Trust, when the other press accounts say he was “told to leave” the country by trust officials.

The story had a number of returns to the public eye in the British press because the current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby served as a counselor at one of Smyth's camps when he was a teenager. Welby said he had no knowledge of the abuse, and to the delight of the press the bishop of Buckingham told Channel 4 that he did not believe the archbishop was telling the truth on that point.

It subsequently emerged the bishop of Guilford attended one of Smyth’s weekends and was abused by Smyth, which prompted another wave of news articles and opinion pieces.

The Times piece, arriving rather late in the game, developed its own angle to the affair by interviewing Mark Stibbe, one of the victims, and others affected by the abuse.

If the Times had stopped at this point, it would have saved the story. However, the editorial decision was made to explain the backstory of the abuse, and at this point the stock characters come forward.

Continue reading "The New York Times and the Atonement," by George Conger.

Categories: Main

No match? Britain's Guardian misses church context in Salvation Army's down-under funeral venture

Thursday, March 16, 2017

You might wonder what a video about The Salvation Army starting a match factory 129 years ago in London's East End has to do with commercial funeral services in Australia, but there's a connection, trust me. (Click the "match factory" link above to see the Army's take. It's worth your time, I believe.)

In that connection lies a tip for Godbeat journalists today: look beyond the immediate story for any deeper background. Both you and your readers will be rewarded.

My thoughts turned to the "Match Girls' Strike" of 1888 when I read this article from Britain's Guardian about a new company in Australia promising to cut the burdensome costs of cremations and funerals:

The Salvation Army has entered Australia’s funeral industry, a move welcomed by consumer advocates concerned by a “long history” of unscrupulous providers taking advantage of the newly bereaved and a lack of competition.Salvo Funerals officially launched in Sydney this week, following a successful six-month trial in which it delivered more than 90 funerals. Malcolm Pittendrigh, the chief executive, said it was a social enterprise designed to both meet the needs of the community and return money to the not-for-profit.He had worked at the Salvation Army as an accountant for nearly 20 years and pitched the idea of a funeral service to senior leadership as a “natural extension” of its work.“Part of our approach was a lean, start-up methodology, where you build, you test, you learn – just to prove that you have something that’s worthy of putting into the community.”In a market dominated by “a couple of big players”, he said Salvo Funerals’ point of difference was its lower-cost offerings.

There's little doubt that The Salvation Army, with 152 years of service as an evangelical Christian church and about 2 million adherents worldwide, could use some positive press in Australia. Decades of alleged physical, emotional and sexual abuse have been reported in children's shelters there, and a plan to redress victims is in the works.

There is, of course, no excuse for mistreating young people, and the Army has deservedly paid a heavy public price for these transgressions.

But Salvo Funerals -- "Salvo" being the Aussie colloquialism for the organization -- offers a chance for some public redemption. So, on that level, it's certainly valid news.

What's missing? Well, some discussion of the fact that the Salvation Army is a church -- just mentioning this subject -- for one. The connection between churches and funerals rites is certainly a longstanding one. It would have been nice to explore that rather obvious angle.

But more crucially, the discount funeral venture has direct links to the Army's early years.

William Booth, a "New Connexion" Methodist evangelist, found his calling in the Victorian slums of East London. Working with ill-mannered and poorly clothed followers spurned by more respectable churches, his "Christian Mission to East London" morphed into a "Salvation Army" whose military-style uniforms both democratized worship -- everyone wore the same style -- and marked out members as available for service to others. (Disclosure: I was a Salvation Army church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist movement, and still have a number of connections there.)

Barely 20 years into the venture, General Booth and Commissioner Elijah Cadman, a pioneering officer (minister), confronted a crisis in the East End. Women, young and old, were dipping small wooden sticks into a white phosphorous compound to make matches, an invention that revolutionized aspects of daily life. But "phossy jaw," an affliction that could be fatal without surgery, took a harsh physical toll on the workers. Wages were also disastrously low.

A solution existed: use a more expensive red phosphorous to promote worker safety, as well as paying a better wage for the piecework of match-making. When workers went on strike in 1888, Booth and Cadman stepped in, opening a factory, employing many, and producing matches safely. The matchboxes were branded "Lights In Darkest England," an echo of Booth's groundbreaking book "In Darkest England -- And the Way Out," which dealt with the horrific poverty of the times.

It took 10 years, but the Army's match venture finally caused capitulation by the top firm, and Booth sold the factory.

This history of social justice involvement by The Salvation Army, though perhaps not as prevalent in the United States, continues today in Britain, where Salvationists such as Lt. John Clifton are active in working for positive change. The definition of the Army as "Christianity with its sleeves rolled up" still holds, it seems.

The bottom line: A little research by the Guardian's antipodean reporter, or a little knowledge on the part of their editor in Britain, would have made this a richer and deeper story.

IMAGE: Icon photo of Salvation Army match box from YouTube video screen capture.

Categories: Main

Another chapter in the tragic story of sin and scandal at Baylor, the world's largest Baptist university

Thursday, March 16, 2017

You can't buy the kind of front-page publicity the New York Times gave Baylor University the other day.

Honestly, you wouldn't want to.

This was the Page 1 headline Friday as the national newspaper added another, in-depth chapter to the sad story of sin and scandal at the world's largest Baptist university: "Baylor's Pride Turns to Shame in Rape Scandal."

The New York Times focuses on one rape victim while providing a detailed overview of the string of sexual assault cases involving Baylor football players that have made national headlines for months. 

Before discussing the recent coverage, I'll remind readers of GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly's past posts on the scandal at his Waco, Texas, alma mater. Our own tmatt (who as a student journalist in the 1970s was involved in student-newspaper coverage of issues linked to sexual assaults) expounded last year on what he describes as "the 'double whammy' facing Baylor (with good cause)": 

First, there is a solid religion angle here as the Baylor Regents try to defend their school, while repenting at the same time. Does Baylor want to live out its own moral doctrines? ...Then there will be sports reporters covering the Baylor crisis and the complicated sexual-assault issues [that NCAA officials are said to be probing] on those 200 or so other campuses. I am sure (not) that the sports czars at other schools never blur the line between campus discipline and the work of local police. Perhaps some other schools are struggling to provide justice for women, while striving to allow the accused to retain their legal rights (while also remembering that a sports scholarship is a very real benefit linked to a contract)?

In a related post, tmatt delved into this key question:

Can you worship God and mammon? Baylor crisis centers on clash between two faiths

My own limited, personal experience with Baylor came in 2003 during my time with The Associated Press in Dallas. For a few months, it seemed like I spent half my life driving back and forth on Interstate 35 as I covered the slaying of 21-year-old basketball player Patrick Dennehy and the ensuing disclosure of major NCAA violations in Baylor's basketball program.

At that time, I wrote a piece with this headline:

Can Baylor balance Christian mission, on-court success?

The lede on that story published in September 2003:

With the Baylor basketball program at a low ebb and reeling from probation for serious rules violations, the world's largest Baptist university turned to a coach praised for his ethics and integrity."Success is not just measured in wins," said the man named to rebuild Baylor's faltering program.The year was 1999 and the coach — Dave Bliss.Now, a new coach, Scott Drew, faces the challenge of cleaning up Bliss' mess and answering this question: Can Baylor practice the Christian mission it preaches and still succeed in the pressurized world of NCAA Division I athletics?

Sound familiar?

So while I understand the narrative -- by the New York Times and other media -- that Baylor's difficulty balancing its Christian ideals and big-time sports ambitions began with football coach Art Briles' hiring before the 2008 season, the real story is more complicated than that. And as tmatt noted, Baylor has for decades been debating how to live out its own doctrines about sexual morality.

The fact that Baylor has promised to clean up its act after past athletics scandals, and seemed to fail miserably, does not make the current crisis any less distressing or the university's reportedly egregious treatment of women sexually assaulted by football players any less revolting. 

The New York Times -- in meticulous, excruciating fashion that makes for powerful journalism but difficult reading -- highlights Baylor's championship-level hypocrisy. And yes, the Grand Canyon-sized gulf between the Christian values the university espouses and the rape culture that top Baylor officials are accused of fostering figures prominently.

Does that mean that the Old Gray Lady covers the religion angle? 

Sort of.

I mean, the New York Times makes clear that the scandal is all the more shocking because of Baylor's religious affiliation:

Collectively, the cases have become a cautionary parable for modern-day college athletics, one in which a Christian university seemed to lose sight of its core values in pursuit of football glory and protected gridiron heroes who preyed on women.

In a statement to The New York Times on Monday, Baylor officials said the university was committed to “doing the right thing” — through self-examination, repeated apologies and making 105 recommended changes to its policies and structure.

“Our mission statement calls for a caring community based on Christian principles, and any act of sexual violence is inimical to these standards,” the statement said. Even so, the scandal has not sat well in Texas.

Also, the story refers at least twice to the university's Baptist foundation. But religion is addressed mostly in a surface-level way and kept at the periphery in the New York Times report.

However, that's not necessarily a criticism, since the same might be said of the place of Christianity in Baylor's football program as women were being raped and their cries for help ignored.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Categories: Main

RNS report confuses many crucial terms in Eastern Orthodox debates on female deacons

Thursday, March 16, 2017

I know that we have been over this before, but once again we need to address a complicated issue in church history -- whether the role of "deaconess" that existed in the early church is the same thing as the status being described in modern proposals to raise women to the ordained role of permanent deacons.

This is the crucial question that reporters and editors need to understand if they are going to cover debates on female deacons in the Church of Rome and in Eastern Orthodoxy. As always, journalists do not have to AGREE with the traditional point of view on the issues involved in this debate, but they do need to understand them.

It would help, of course, if journalists knew the details of the duties that historians believe ancient deaconesses performed, as well as the liturgical work done by today's permanent deacons. (Note: "Permanent," as opposed to deacons who will soon transition to the priesthood.)

The pivotal question, as described by Pope Francis last year, is whether the church is going to restore the ancient role of the deaconess or do something new, which would be ordaining -- that's the key word -- women to the altar-centered role of permanent deacon.

I bring this up because of a recent Religion News Service story that, truth be told, is basically a press release for the movement to ordain female deacons in Eastern Orthodox churches. The headline: "Orthodox Church debate over women deacons moves one step closer to reality."

The crucial material begins here, where the issue is clearly framed as a debate about the ordination of women:

That prospect may now be a giant step closer to reality, since the Patriarch of Alexandria, who presides over the entire Orthodox Church in Africa, followed up on his 2016 decision to reintroduce women deacons and last month appointed six nuns to be subdeaconesses within the church.In a symbolic ceremony, the patriarch blessed the women and used other religious symbols to effectively restore women’s ordination within Orthodoxy. The move follows years of discussions within different branches of Orthodoxy on whether to reinstitute women deacons, and it comes at a time of growing interest around the issue within the Greek Orthodox Church, the largest Orthodox denomination in the U.S.

This is completely over the top. And what, exactly, is a "subdeaconess"?

Let's back up for a moment. For starters, the role of a subdeacon is not the same, in Orthodoxy, as that of a permanent deacon. Deacons, priests and bishops are ordained ministers, while subdeacons are considered part of a "minor order."

To say that creating female subdeacons is to "effectively restore women's ordination within Orthodox" is to (a) say that a subdeacon is the same thing as an ordained deacon and (b) that the ordination of women to altar-centered ministry existed in the ancient church.

Note that this RNS feature states as a fact the position held by scholars and activists on one side of the debate. And people on the other side of the debate? It appears that they may exist, but their views are never clearly stated.

Consider the following block of material, based on material from church historian James Skedros, dean of Holy Cross Orthodox Seminary. First there is this:

A deaconess is the female equivalent of a deacon, who assists the priest and the bishop during church services.

Note the lack of attribution for this statement of fact. Once again, this is the very issue that is currently being debated in Rome and in the East.

Now, read carefully what comes next:

Unlike a priest or a bishop, who presides over worship and Communion, a deacon cannot lead. A priest or bishop must bless deacons before they can lead collective prayers, read from sacred writings in the Bible or give Communion.According to Skedros, the African appointment is not technically an ordination but it may be a step in that direction.“It’s very significant because the Church of Alexandria has identified particular ministries in their church for women,” Skedros said. “It’s a big step -- not historically but culturally.” ...“They could be teaching catechism or assisting in baptisms,” Skedros said of possible future deaconesses. Most importantly, though, he emphasized that the Church of Alexandria has found its specific ministerial need for subdeaconesses.

Here is the crucial point. Skedros appears to be carefully drawing a line between the ordained role of the deacon -- who can, when blessed by a priest or bishop -- read the Gospel, preach and distribute Holy Communion, and the much more limited duties of the subdeacon. He is underlining the crucial fact that subdeacons are not ordained deacons.

Notice how RNS keeps getting terms switched around? Let's work our way through the following:

Other branches of Orthodoxy have yet to tackle whether they should reinstate an old practice or create a new one, said Chris Kolentsas, priest in training at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles. So, he said, the debate continues today among church leaders in America.

Yes, that is true. The "old practice" would be that of the ancient deaconess, women who apparently assisted in the (naked) baptisms of female converts, served the poor and took part in other teaching ministries -- as described by Skedros.

The "new" practice, when you listen to activists on that side of the debate, would be the ordination of women to the permanent deaconate, one step from the priesthood. Let's keep reading.

The church would have to clarify the purpose of women’s deacons before the position could be reintroduced, and that role does not have to be the same as that of the deaconesses in Alexandria.

Once again, here is the big question that is being debated, only with the views of people on one side stated as a fact -- without attribution. Is this Kolentsas? Or is this the voice of:

Marilyn Rouvelas, chair of Orthodox Deacons, a women’s ordination ministry in Virginia, said deaconesses are desperately needed in the U.S.“It’s hard for a priest to serve an entire community,” said Rouvelas. “They’re already overworked.”

Let's look at one other point of confusion, later in the story.

Part of the issue is that in Orthodoxy becoming a deacon is considered a steppingstone to becoming a priest.

Note, again, that the journalists who handled this story do not seem to understand that in Orthodoxy (as in the Church of Rome) there are permanent deacons who are ordained to serve as deacons, remaining in that role. Then there are deacons, often called "transitional" deacons, who are on their way to the priesthood, often in a matter of weeks.

Yes, I know that this is picky, but it's important for journalists to be as accurate as possible, even when covering complicated topics such as this one.

However, in Orthodoxy a subdeacon is not a deacon.

A permanent deacon is not a transitional deacon.

It is safe to say that a subdeaconess is not the same thing as a deaconess.

Finally, the modern leaders of the world's ancient liturgical church communions are debating -- this is the main point, again -- whether the ancient deaconesses mentioned in the New Testament held an office that can be equated to that of modern, ordained deacons who serve at the altar, assisting priests.

It's crucial for reporters to talk to articulate, qualified voices on both sides of this debate and to clearly quote their views, using attribution clauses to help readers know who is saying what.

As the saying goes, right now: #JournalismMatters

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Settling in to follow the Russell Moore story: Where will Southern Baptists gather to talk shop?

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Having seen a few Southern Baptist Convention rodeos during my time, I would assume that most of the key debates about the work of the Rev. Russell Moore have moved back into the world of emails, cellphones and talks behind closed doors.

The key for reporters -- other than paying attention to social media -- will be to try to figure out when and where young and old Baptists in the various niches will gather to talk shop over coffee during breaks in their usual meetings. (Few Southern Baptists hide out and talk in bars. But think about it: Would reporters ever think to look for them there?)

Maybe look for gatherings of pastors at the level of regional associations, maybe in North Texas and other hot zones? As I suggested in my earlier post, I would also keep an eye on Louisville and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, where Moore has many ties. The leader of that campus, of course, is the influential President Albert Mohler, Jr., another articulate conservative critic of Donald Trump.

Now that public debates about Moore's work have begun -- with some journalists paying attention -- it is crucial that key leaders in the growing networks of African-American Southern Baptist churches have made their views clear. These churches are crucial to the SBC's future and national leaders know it. Click here for a strategic Baptist Press story on that, released before the March 13 meeting between Moore and the Rev. Frank Page, head of the SBC executive committee.

In terms of a mainstream news update on these developments, look to this story by Religion News Service veteran Adelle Banks, with this headline: "Black Southern Baptists: ‘We are pulling for Dr. Moore’."

Like I said, they are making their views quite clear.

(RNS) Embattled Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore, the public face of the nation’s largest Protestant group, has at least one group of vocal supporters: African-American Southern Baptist leaders.From the head of the SBC’s black fellowship to former Southern Baptist Convention President Fred Luter, these officials have made it clear that, as one of their statements said, “We are pulling for Dr. Moore.”

Wait, there is more. The whole Banks report is a must-read item.

Two of three recent statements featuring black leaders’ support of Moore compare him to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a leader whose messages about justice were rejected by some of his generation, including some Southern Baptists.In an open letter published last week in Baptist outlets, Byron J. Day, president of the National African American Fellowship of the SBC, called for unity within the denomination.“There are some who have suggested withholding cooperative dollars until Dr. Moore is either disciplined or fired. However, Russell Moore has done nothing worthy of discipline or firing,” he wrote. “He has represented all Southern Baptists, contending for the highly visible ethical issues of abortion and biblical marriage; but he has also addressed social injustices such as racism which have been long overlooked.”

Once again, when I get hate email about Moore (whenever he is mentioned here at GetReligion), these blasts always focus on issues directly linked to Trump and/or immigration. The key, it appears, is that many think Moore is a heretic when it comes to politics, as opposed to his moral theology on hot-button social issues.

But, more than anything else, Moore has stressed the need for broad coalitions in support of religious liberty. As he stated at the national SBC gathering last year, while defending SBC support for fair treatment of mainstream Muslims seeking permits to build mosques:

"What it means to be a Baptist is to support soul freedom for everybody," Moore said. "[W]hen you have a government that says, 'We can decide whether or not a house of worship is being constructed based upon the theological beliefs of that house of worship,' then there are going to be Southern Baptist churches in San Francisco and New York and throughout this country who are not going to be able to build."

In that context, I keep waiting for someone to note that there is nothing new about Moore striving to make a case for conservative beliefs in hostile political territory, including among liberals in the public square. Reporters need to note an early line on his resume.

As a young adult -- in the early 1990s -- he worked for U.S. Rep. Gene Taylor, a Democrat whose views on abortion and many other social issues were more conservative than most garden-variety Republicans. Taylor became a Republican in 2014, after leaving Congress a few years earlier. Here is a key piece of a Moore tribute to Taylor:

This was a man who was a Democratic United States Congressman, at that time in the state of Mississippi, there wasn’t really a difference between Democratic and Republican parties on the social issues -- most of the Democrats were pro-life and pro-family -- but as he was dealing with the national party, I remember hearing some party bosses saying to him, “You might have a future if you didn’t have the position that you have on the abortion question.” And around that time right before that and right after that, you had a lot of politicians in that party who switched on the abortion issue because they knew that they would never be able to make it nationally, not going to be chosen to be vice president, not going to be able to win a presidential nomination. ... I don’t think my boss thought that, but many of them do and my boss just said, as he heard one person say to him, “Well, if you alter that position on abortion, then you might have a future,” his response to that was to say “Yeah, but then I’d be a prostitute.”I was pro-life before I came to work for him but I don’t think I cared about the issue until I was with him and I saw that for him it wasn’t just a platform issue, it wasn’t just a pro-forma sort of thing, he really cared about this issue, which is why he always mentioned it. I cannot think of a campaign that he ran when he wouldn’t talk about the unborn, not just about life generally, but about unborn children and so I learned a lot from that.

Stop and think about that. It is one think to make the pro-life case in a fundraising letter to other religious conservatives. It is something else to learn how to take that stand, and push for realistic pro-life legislation, in rooms full of Democrats in the early 1990s.

Moore has -- facing a more complex, pluralistic America -- been taking a similar approach in defense of religious liberty.

Suffice it to say that, if and when Trump signs an executive order or a major bill defending religious liberty, Moore will be the first to cheer, while also striving to get moderate Democrats to meet conservatives half way on issues linked to the First Amendment.

In conclusion, let me point GetReligion readers toward one other news report, as we look to the future of this complex story.

Several people have written me to note that some reporters need to grasp that, under the structures that govern Southern Baptist work, Page was not the person who had the right to demand that Moore resign. Others would have to sign on to flip that switch.

You can see a nod to this in a new Emma Green piece at The Atlantic. This section of her analysis is long, but crucial. I urge journalists to check out the URLs in this section, as well.

Short of Moore deciding he was going to resign, it was unlikely he would have lost his job on Monday. The governing structure of the Southern Baptist Convention is complex: Only the board of trustees that specifically oversees Moore’s organization, the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, has the power to ask him to resign; Page couldn’t have fired Moore even if he wanted to. Ken Barbaric, who chairs the ERLC’s board of trustees, has openly praised Moore and emphasized his support for Moore’s work.

This leads to a discussion of the key theme in this drama, a growing division in the style and priorities of two different generations of SBC leaders. The main quote here is from the Rev. Dave Miller of Sioux City, Iowa, who edits the SBC Voices weblog.

The fight over Moore is not just about him, though. The Southern Baptist Convention is changing, and Moore represents the denomination’s shift in orientation. Moore has frequently spoken out against the old-guard religious right, which was led in the 1990s and ’00s in part by his predecessor at the ERLC, Richard Land. Moore has called on the denomination to divorce itself from Republican politics, especially as younger evangelicals show themselves to be more politically diverse, and has moved his organization in that direction. He is part of a new generation of pastors, who tend to be more Calvinist in orientation, who have taken over leadership roles.“When I was young, there was a culture that the SBC had,” said Miller. “You could go into any SBC church, and there just was a way we did things. The preachers dressed alike, and we sang from the same hymnbook, and there was a culture that bound us together. That’s been blown completely to pieces.”The denomination is also looking ahead to a future membership that will be less white and more black and brown: Some of the most vibrant, growing communities in the church include Hispanic evangelicals, for example.

That's all for now. Please leave me links, in our comments pages, to key stories and blog posts that you think would interest reporters covering this ongoing story.

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