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A year later, Wall Street Journal revisits 'Target's pricey social lesson' on transgender bathrooms

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Front page of today's @WSJ

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) April 6, 2017

As I mentioned earlier this week, I'm in Dallas-Fort Worth enjoying some Texas Rangers baseball games with family and friends.

Of course, "enjoying" may not be the best verb since my team keeps blowing late-inning leads.

But I digress.

I'm staying at my parents' house, and somehow, the subject of Target stores came up in conversation. My mom mentioned that she hasn't shopped at Target since the retailer made a splash last year by touting its transgender-friendly toilets.

"I just don't think little girls should have to be afraid to go to the restroom and worry about who might be in there," she said.

In writing about the controversy last year, I admitted that I had no plans to boycott Target:

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

At the time I called boycotts "silly," I didn't realize my mother would be participating. But seriously, the number of people I know — most of them conservative Christians — who have responded similarly to Target's LGBT activism has surprised me.

Perhaps there's a news story there?


This update piece is on the front page of today's Wall Street Journal:

Target blogged about its welcoming bathroom policy for transgender individuals. Then the backlash began.

— Wall Street Journal (@WSJ) April 5, 2017

The lede from the WSJ:

In April last year, Target Corp. published a blog post welcoming transgender employees and shoppers to use restrooms and fitting rooms corresponding with their gender identities. “Everyone deserves to feel like they belong,” read the post, which turned half of Target’s red bullseye logo into a gay-pride rainbow.Other retailers have similar policies. But for Target, the posting of what was its long-held practice quickly became an expensive and distracting lesson about the perils of combining the web’s megaphone with touchy social issues.Target Chief Executive Brian Cornell hadn’t approved the April 19 post, which responded to a move by North Carolina to legislate bathroom use, said people familiar with the episode and its aftermath at Target. He didn’t see an email notifying executives of the post, and was surprised to learn about it.The next day, a conservative Christian nonprofit, American Family Association, called for a boycott of Target, saying the policy “is exactly how sexual predators get access to their victims.” Protesters picketed stores from Clovis, Calif., to Mount Dora, Fla.At Target’s Minneapolis headquarters, executives scrambled to control the damage, according to the people familiar with the aftermath, perplexed that they were pilloried for a policy common to retailers. Sales started to decline and have now in every quarter since.

Here at GetReligion last year, I complained about news organizations failing to quote actual Target customers upset by the policy:

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

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) April 29, 2016

In so-called news story on #BoycottTarget, @AP shows its bias:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 4, 2016

Today's WSJ story is insightful and compelling in a number of ways. For example, one of my fellow GetReligionistas quipped:

Not that this is a faith journalism issue at all, but perhaps the most significant aspect of the story, IMO, is how many Target shoppers are switching to They're taking over!

Also, the piece points out that a number of retailers — including Wal-Mart, from which my mother brought home a carload full of groceries yesterday — have policies similar to Target's. However, they have refrained from publicizing those policies.

But I'm particularly pleased that the WSJ quotes former Target shoppers — voices who were missing from most media reports last year — and gives them an opportunity to explain their thinking:

“Target picked a side and pretty much said to the rest of us that we don’t matter,” said Mary McCandless, a shopper in Winston-Salem, N.C. “They should have just left it as, ‘don’t ask, don’t show, don’t tell.’ ”

And later in the story:

Target said in August it would spend $20 million to add private bathrooms to the stores that didn’t have them, an investment executives viewed as a compromise.Those moves didn’t assuage shopper Tim Maxwell of Mansfield, Texas, who said he and his wife canceled their Target credit card. “It made me realize that even I can now go into the women’s bathroom with my daughter,” said Mr. Maxwell, 49, a project manager. “They opened the floodgates.”The Maxwells have taken their business to Amazon. “The ironic part,” Mr. Maxwell said, “is that we are now realizing that we never really needed to go to Target to begin with.”

How does religion figure in the WSJ report? It does not, at least overtly.

Does that mean that I spotted holy ghosts? Not necessarily.

I mean, I could see where the paper might have explained the religious beliefs underlying why some customers reacted negatively to the policy. But in the case of this particular story, the absence of such details did not strike me as a major problem.

Overall, I found the front-page report thorough and revealing. Kudos to the WSJ.

Categories: Main

ESPN doctrine: Politics and 'social issues' are part of sports, but what about religion?

Thursday, April 6, 2017

I'm sure there are lots of GetReligion readers who are familiar with the old etiquette rule stating that there are two things people are not supposed to talk about in polite company -- religion and politics.

However, we now know that the same rule -- or half of it -- does not apply to sports talk at ESPN.

This is complicated. The other day, our own Bobby Ross Jr., followed up on a great tip from a reader about some North Caroline State football players who volunteered some of their time to do mission work in Kenya. The headline on that piece stated: "Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter."

You see, despite all kinds of social media references to the fact that this was a Christian missions trip (Do secular groups use the word "missions" in this context?), the ESPN team went way out of its way to avoid any references to religious faith. At the end, Bobby said:

Please don't misunderstand me: I think it's great that ESPN decided to report on a "life-changing experience" that made a "profound impact" and "inspired (one of [punter A.J.] Cole's teammates) so much."I just wish ESPN would go ahead and tell the rest of the story -- the one that involves those unmentioned words above.Seriously, why is ESPN -- seemingly -- so afraid of religion?

As the video at the top of this post notes, Cole has been doing this generic missions work for quite some time now.

Anyway, we have received emails from readers claiming that ESPN has an actual policy forbidding discussions of religion on the air -- but have never been given direct evidence of this. There has also been talk (think Christmas wars) about ESPN banning adds that mention Jesus, etc.

Meanwhile, ESPN ratings have been in a dangerous spiral that some, in addition to the obvious ties to young viewers cutting cables to their screens, have linked to the sports giant airing more and more commentaries backing progressive cultural and political causes, some of which have implications for traditional religious believers.

Now, ESPN Public Editor Jim Brady has written a very interesting essay about new ESPN policies affecting political speech during news reports. The headline: "New ESPN guidelines recognize connection between sports, politics." Let's walk through this a bit:

ESPN has issued new political and election guidelines for its employees that, while allowing for political discussion on the network’s platforms, recommend connecting those comments to sports whenever possible. The new policies also provide separate guidelines for ESPN staffers working on news and those engaging in commentary.The timing of the release of the election guidelines is a bit unusual -- such guidelines are rarely released right after a presidential election; they’re usually updated near the beginning of a presidential campaign. But we are living in unique political times, which ESPN apparently recognized, which explains the revised guidelines for discussion of political and social issues.“Given the intense interest in the most recent presidential election and the fact subsequent political and social discussions often intersected with the sports world, we found it to be an appropriate time to review our guidelines,” said Patrick Stiegman, ESPN’s vice president of global digital content and the chairman of the company’s internal Editorial Board, which drafted the new guidelines.

For those interested in religion, it's clear that the key words in all of that are these -- "social issues." What kinds of social issues are we talking about? I would assume that we are primarily talking about issues of race and gender.

Gender would link directly to social issues linked to the Sexual Revolution and that leads you straight to stories that might require dealing with the beliefs of traditional Jews, Christians, Muslims and others. Maybe it is safer to say that religion -- as opposed to politics and social issues -- is too hot to touch? Let's read on.

So what’s different in the new policies? Let’s start with the Political and Social Issues guidelines. Its first line lays out ESPN’s challenge quite accurately:“At ESPN, our reputation and credibility with viewers, readers and listeners are paramount. Related to political and social issues, our audiences should be confident our original reporting of news is not influenced by political pressures or personal agendas.”As I wrote in November, not all ESPN consumers -- or employees, for that matter -- feel the company has lived up to this ideal. Stiegman said that the buzz around the topic of ESPN and politics -- also written about by The New York Times, Awful Announcing, the Orlando Sentinel and many conservative sites criticizing ESPN’s perceived leftward tilt -- didn’t play a significant role in the revision of the guidelines.The two most notable changes from the Political Advocacy policy are the delineation of guidelines between news and commentary, and allowing for increased political discussion on ESPN platforms, as warranted and connected to sports.

There is much more. The key is that politics is clearly seen as a force in life that, when linked to sports people and events, must be discussed. However, ESPN folks are urged to avoid inflammatory language and direct attacks on individuals. Oh, and it's best to keep blatant statements of political opinion out of hard news reporting. #DUH

It's also clear that ESPN managers have noticed that, well, ESPN people have been known to speak their minds in social media. Thus:.

“Writers, reporters, producers and editors directly involved in ‘hard’ news reporting, investigative or enterprise assignments and related coverage should refrain in any public-facing forum from taking positions on political or social issues, candidates or office holders.”The three key words here are “public-facing forum.” That expands this policy beyond ESPN’s borders and brings the Wild West of social media into play. In fact, later in the memo, it is said directly that the policy applies to “ESPN, Twitter, Facebook and other media.”This is where the potential for problems exists. ESPN news reporters tweeting political opinions from their own social accounts would technically violate this policy. Again, hard news reporters are less likely to use social media for this purpose than commentators, but how effective this policy is will depend on how hard executives choose to look at social media. Let’s be honest: It’s not too hard to find ESPN employees tweeting political opinions.

There's much more to read here.

However, one thing is clear -- politics is real. Sports is real. Thus, ESPN people have to be able to talk about links between politics and sports. This includes "politics" about social issues.

But note: If ESPN leaders really have banned, or even strongly discouraged, references to religious beliefs and practices, this would make it very hard to cover stories involving the actions of religious individuals and institutions. There might even be cases -- think battles over gender and locker room showers -- in which ignoring religious beliefs would totally skew coverage of "political" issues linked to religious liberty and sports. Right?

Politics are controversial, but real.

Religion is certainly controversial, but it would appear that it is not real. Faith is just feelings and emotions and personal stuff? I'm connecting dots here, because I have never seen a direct URL to an ESPN policy on this. We need to see a real ESPN policy on this issue.

Perhaps Brady could clear this up. Is there an ESPN policy affecting news and commentary linked to religion, as well as the obvious religious content in many stories about politics, religious liberty and social issues? How about stories in which religious beliefs have affected the lives of athletes?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Oregon's homeless: The Eugene Register-Guard doesn't explore why many people help out

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Oregon’s second-largest city, Eugene, is located in a bucolic part of the state along Interstate-5. Set against low mountains, it is only an hour from the state’s legendary beaches and rocky coast. Its temperate climate has also attracted a problem that’s plaguing the entire West Coast: Rampant homelessness. The local police chief says the scene in Eugene is the worst he’s ever seen

Its largest newspaper, the Eugene Register-Guard, just got lauded by the Poynter Institute for its ongoing editorial project on homelessness. The reason this caught my eye is that the Register-Guard is one of the most religion-free newspapers I’ve ever seen. And that's saying a lot in the Pacific Northwest where the religion coverage everywhere is pretty sparse. 

But with homelessness, I thought, they can’t avoid the faith element, can they?

How about the 60-year-old Eugene Mission, which has a long track record of helping the homeless? Or how of all the helping-the-homeless groups in Eugene, two have connections to the Catholic Church?

But avoid it they have. On Feb. 12, the newspaper said in an editorial: 

Our goal in this project is to highlight efforts locally and elsewhere that are proving successful, examine what it will take to improve and expand those efforts, and to identify how local organizations can work more efficiently and collaboratively to close gaps in the system. The editorial page coverage will be supplemented by periodic Register-Guard news articles on the issue. And because this project will be a journey for all of us, we’ll adjust plans along the way.

I found several of parts of their project. Here’s a March 9 piece about a local elementary school helping the homeless; a March 19 piece about domestic violence contributing to homelessness; and then a piece that ran last fall about an affordable housing project for the poor. There was also an editorial last fall about that same effort.

But what about the part that churches played in getting such projects off the ground? In 2014, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly traveled from Washington, DC to do a piece about Opportunity Village, a set of small houses for the homeless. They were able to get information about First Christian Church of Eugene's involvement with the village.  Even the Oregonian, which was 111 miles to the north, covered the village.

But when the Register-Guard wrote about it, also in 2014, the faith mentions were pretty peripheral. Same with their more recent piece on the Eugene Mission, a Christian shelter for the homeless. We talk a lot in this blog about "ghosts" in religion copy which are reminders of religion angles that exist but were simply not included in a given story. Well, I'd call what the Register-Guard produces as "religion wraiths." There's a mention, but it's quite skeletal in the way of credit or background about the "why" these church groups are tackling homelessness. 

In a Feb. 16 piece about the problem (which came with a photo of a young man, seated on a blanket with his dog, begging for “laundry and vegan food”), the newspaper says:

A consultant on Wednesday delivered a blunt critique of downtown Eugene, telling city leaders the public perception that the area is unsafe has reached “crisis level” and is thwarting its potential to become more vibrant.The city hired New York-based Project for Public Spaces to recommend ways to make downtown’s public spaces safer, welcoming and more active, following the firm’s community outreach and survey efforts. The firm presented numerous concepts for the city’s consideration during the meeting.Meg Walker, the firm’s vice president and design director, said it has found problems with the homeless in other cities, but the situation in downtown Eugene is at a “crisis level and it must be addressed.”(She added), “I’ve worked all over the country, and many of my colleagues have, (and) I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite this serious...Many residents said they don’t come downtown because they feel unsafe or intimated, and that loiterers are “dominating” its public spaces, including Park Blocks, located at Eighth Avenue and Oak Street, and Broadway Plaza, Walker said.

The homeless aren't going away any time soon, so here's hoping the Register-Guard will make good on its intent to highlight the good things that the locals are doing to erase the problem. And a lot of those locals may have religious reasons for doing so. 

Is it asking too much for Eugene's major newspaper to devote generous time and space as to the God-shaped reasons for why these folks do what they do?

Categories: Main

Rare reverse New York Times 'Kellerism' as ex-jihadi tells why he converted to Christianity

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Media hounds -- if you're reading GetReligion that probably means you -- will likely recall the recent dust up involving television news icon Ted Koppel and Fox's Sean Hannity. They went after each other over the impact on the body politic of the often confusing mix of "news" and "opinion" that now dominates American journalism.

It started, you'll remember, when Koppel criticized Hannity in an interview Koppel did with him for CBS. Koppel, a network news traditionalist, labeled Hannity's unabashed advocacy style as "bad" for America.

That followed Hannity's statement -- and Koppel's expressing the opposite opinion -- that Americans were media savvy enough to discern the difference between reported facts and individual opinions. Said Hannity:

We have to give some credit to the American people that they are somewhat intelligent and that they know the difference between an opinion show and a news show.

Koppel and Hannity were talking, in the main, about contemporary cable TV. But as GetReligion writers repeatedly note, the same may be said these days of any news platform -- print, web and broadcast.

I happen to believe that what we were sure was hard news just a couple of decades ago was not entirely free of opinion. Journalism has never been pure (and nobody at this weblog has ever argued that it was). News media have too much influence on political and social issues for the power elite to always resist the temptation to manipulate information for its own ends.

But that's another post. Suffice it to say that I agree that the mixing of fact and opinion today is greater than I've ever witnessed in my 50-plus years in and around the news business. This piece from The Washington Post strikes me as a solid summation of the situation.

Ironically, it's also a clear example of the trend it explains, in that it ran without any label alerting readers that it was loaded with opinion, which it clearly is.

True, it was played in the Post's Style section, which has long been much looser than the paper's news pages about mixing news and opinion. But lowering the bar does not absolve journalists from clearly identifying opinion when that's what it is; just a thumbnail photo of the writer or a different type face can be enough to tip off the reader.

I've been at this craft long enough to discern news from opinion. Virtually any news pro (or student) or media-savvy news consumer will also spot opinion/analysis woven into a piece. But I'm not sure the less media-savvy -- and I would include most Americans in this category -- consciously recognize this.

Just last weekend GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly -- as he does regularly -- noted that when it comes to religion reporting, the opinion bias most often coloring the facts favors liberal moral and religious views, if not outright secularism.

Several years ago, tmatt coined a journalism term to express this -- "Kellerism." Click here for the remarks by retired New York Times editor Bill Keller that inspired this move.

Well, tmatt's correct about that, of course (I say this as the GR in-house religious liberal). Moreover, I'd say that spotting Kellerisms in the mainstream media is a -- if not the -- prime reason GR regulars, who tend to be of a conservative bent on religious doctrines (as well as conservative when it comes to old-school journalism basics), are attracted to our site.

But "most often" is not the same as "always." Sometimes, a reverse Kellerism pops up, even in the  Times. This piece -- which was presented as a straight news feature story -- is Example A.

It's enough to make you think that some Times people (hello editor Dean Baquet) think that all those conservative cries for the newspaper to be fair and accurate in religion coverage means swinging over to the opposite extreme. Nobody here thinks that or wants that.

This piece ran under the headline, "The Jihadi Who Turned to Jesus," and was labeled (online, at least) "Saturday Profile" and placed in the web version's Middle East news section.

It told the personal journey of Bashir Mohammad, born a Syrian Muslim Kurd, who fought with the Nusra Front, an Al Qaeda offshoot, but eventually left the Sunni Islamist group because of his disgust at the brutality it displayed toward other Muslims.

Eventually, he fled to Turkey with his wife. When his wife became seriously ill, his cousin in Canada who had converted to Christianity had his prayer group pray for her, and she recovered. This turned Mohammad toward Christianity. The piece notes the following:

The conversion of Muslim refugees to Christianity is not a new phenomenon, particularly in majority-Christian countries. Converts sometimes stand accused of trying to enhance their chances of asylum by making it dangerous to deport them back to places with a history of Islamist persecution.Mr. Mohammad’s particular experience, however, does not fit easily into this narrative. He lives in a majority-Muslim country, has little interest in seeking asylum in the West and treads an unlikely path followed by few former jihadis.

Read the story a bit further and you'll encounter this paragraph:

Exactly why [Mohammad] sought solace in Christianity, rather than a more mainstream version of Islam, no one can quite explain. Reading the Bible, Mr. Mohammad claimed, made him calmer than reading the Quran. The churches he attended, Mr. Mohammad said, made him feel more welcome than the neighborhood mosques. In his personal view, Christian prayers were more generous than Muslim ones. But these are subjective claims, and many would reject the characterization of Islam as a less benign religion, much as they would reject Nusra’s extremist interpretation of it.

That's an interesting paragraph. It includes broad generalizations that can only be ascribed to the writer's point of view (aka opinions), and an admission that the deeply subjective nature of Mohammad's claims means he's being taken at his word -- a decision that means the writer is inclined to believe him. Then again, that last sentence could also be read to mean the writer rejected what the convert said, but I doubt this.

However, the only persons mentioned in the story that confirm any of Mohammad's claims are his wife and the "missionary from an evangelical group based in Jordan called the Good Shepherd," who apparently administered whatever formal conversion Mohammad underwent.

Neither of the two, to say the least, can be considered unbiased observers. Lacking any other points of view in this story, that appears to be reverse Kellerism, I'd say.

Additionally, unaddressed are questions -- basic factual questions -- about whether Mohammad is attached to a specific congregation in Istanbul, where he reportedly is living, or why, at just 25 and new to Christianity himself, he leads the prayer group mentioned in the story's lede.

A third question that comes to mind is why so little information was provided about the Good Shepherd "evangelical group" that facilitated Mohammad's conversion. While a link to the group is provided in the Times piece, it takes you to a primarily Arabic-language page, which I cannot translate -- though I might note that the last name of the missionary in the Times piece is spelled differently in English on the website than it is in the story.

Perhaps no more information about Good Shepherd was provided to protect it. To facilitate Christian conversions in increasing Islamist Turkey has got to be dangerous. I would imagine that being a new evangelical Christian refugee in Turkey also has to be dangerous, not to mention economically fraught.

So I wonder. Will Mohammad remain in Turkey or will he decide he can do better in, let's say, majority Christian Canada or Germany? And if so, how long will he continue to call himself Mohammad?

Let me be clear. I question this story's construction, but I am not questioning Mohammad's conversion, and certainly not his escape from a sadistically violent version of Islam. Nor am I theologically judging Christianity or Islam. This is strictly about the journalism and what news consumers are able to read between the lines.

My point here is only that there are many stories out there in American journalism land that, consciously or subconsciously, assume a Christian viewpoint. This piece came from the Times but my bet is there are many more such reverse Kellerism stories from the nation's heartland -- even if many are poorly constructed -- than we at GR get to comment on.

In short, Christianity isn't always sold short by mainstream media.

Let me also say that I don't think tmatt and the other folks here ignore reverse Kellerism links -- URLs pointing to stories -- sent in by readers. So if you see any NEWS pieces, not commentary, that turn Kellerism on it's head, please let us know. We will all appreciate it.

Please read the full Times story yourself. And please let me know what you think. I'm a big boy and can withstand criticism.

Categories: Main

Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

What we have here is a New York Times story that would appear to fit perfectly under the umbrella of "Kellerism," the emerging journalism doctrine (click here and here for background) stating that there is no need for balance and fairness on many moral and religious issues because the Times already knows who is right.

The headline on this story from Illinois puts it right in the middle of one of America's hottest clashes between the Sexual Revolution and heartland values: "A Transgender Student Won Her Battle. Now It’s War."

It appears that the goal of this story, however, was to let readers actually hear the voices of ordinary people on both sides of this debate. That's different than the new mainstream-media normal in which the hero or heroine gets to narrate the story and then the opposition appears via one quote from a press release or an appointed lawyer. The key is that only one side sounds human.

But the Times team -- to its credit -- took another approach this time. Here is the rather standard overture:

PALATINE, Ill. -- Tall and sylphlike, an athlete with delicate features and a blond topknot, she changes clothes behind a privacy curtain in the girls’ locker room at her high school. But just being allowed to set foot in that locker room was a huge victory for the girl. She is transgender.She graduates in May -- but the war over how to accommodate transgender students is far from over in her Chicago suburb.A new legal challenge is making its way through the courts. And a coalition of insurgent school board candidates, an evangelical church and conservative parents are looking to reshape district policy. The goal: preventing transgender girls and boys from sharing the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice with other girls and boys, on the grounds that they are “the opposite biological sex.” Their presence, the opponents argue, violates community standards of decency.

Yes, the basic DNA issue is treated with scare quotes. However, note the passing reference to the evangelical church that is involved in this debate. That is where the Times faced an interesting complication that, frankly, I have seen many a newspaper editor dodge in the past.

Experts and activists play very small parts in this story, which means that it is rather light when it comes to legal arguments. It's clear that the emphasis here is on the voices of the ordinary people involved in the case.

The unnamed student at the heart of this story gets to speak quite a bit, which is totally necessary in a story of this kind. The voice that surprised me, in terms of its clash with "Kellerism" norms, was that of the evangelical pastor.

James Pittman Jr., pastor of New Hope Community Church, an evangelical congregation of about 50 active members in Palatine, has become a regular, along with members of his church, at school board meetings and candidates’ forums where transgender policy is discussed.Pastor Pittman has become a particularly effective foil against the argument often made that the transgender rights movement is heir to the civil rights movement. “I am black; my family members are black,” he said in an interview in his church. “None of my family members nor friends would equate this movement to the civil rights movement. Matter of fact, that’s an insult.”“We didn’t choose to be black,” he said, “and no matter what choice we make in the future, guess what? We’re still going to be black.”

Once again, it is strange that Associated Press Stylebook standards for clergy titles never seem to apply to African-Americans. I would have thought that it would have been "the Rev. James Pittman, Jr."

But never mind. Anyone who knows anything about the vast majority of African-American churches in this land knows that they tend to take traditional stands on sexuality issues. There was a reason that President Barack Obama didn't have his change of heart on same-sex marriage until he knew that his second term in the White House was pretty much a lock.

So it was striking that the Times featured a black pastor, in a story on this topic.

Otherwise, the story includes an appropriate balance of voices on both sides of this painful and emotional local debate. It's clear that the newspaper of record was, in this case, striving for some sense of balance and a show of respect for the views of people on both sides. It even notes that students who spoke out against the pro-trans policy have reported being bullied because of their beliefs.

The coverage is rather different in a Washington Post story -- "Transgender student’s quest to use girls’ locker room defines school board race in Chicago suburb" -- about this same case.

In this story, it's basically school politics from A to Z and the conservative candidates declined to talk to Post. Thus, readers get the pretty standard formula mentioned above, with human voices on the trans side of the debate and legal jargon on the other side.

This is not a story about people, you see, at least not on both sides. It's about politics.

Meanwhile, what about the Rev. Pittman? Did anyone from the Post go to his church and hear his point of view, as an African-American pastor who has spoken out in public forums? The answer: "no." This story also avoids contacts with students who believe that the current pro-trans policy violates their privacy rights in the locker room.

Thus, the Post story ends pretty much where one would expect it to end.

Amid the rancor, the student at the center of the debate says life is normal at William Fremd High School, where she uses the girls’ locker room multiple times a week and says her classmates for the most part don’t react.“Young people, they don’t care,” said the student, who asked to be referred to as Student A, as she is described in court papers. “I use the girl’s bathroom and no one makes an issue of it.”If the board flips and a new policy goes into effect restricting her to a separate facility, she said she would feel “horrible” but would continue to use the locker room and restroom where she thinks she belongs. “If somebody wanted to try and stop me from going into that bathroom every day, go for it,” she said.

This is an essential voice in this story.

Obviously. Everyone would agree on that. But where are the other voices?

Categories: Main

Happily God-less clergy say this time, it really is their year; Washington Post uncritically says, 'Amen'

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Back in the dim recesses of history, I wrote for several information technology publications.

A running joke in the late 1980s and early 1990s, was that this year, whichever year that was, would be the "Year of the LAN," or local-area network, that had long been prophesied. My colleagues and I would smirk a bit whenever some conference speaker declared this, and go back to our reporting.

The "Year of the LAN" did eventually arrive. Anyone who has a home network, wired or wireless, could be said to have ushered it in. But it came gradually, without the fanfare many in the industry sought to attach to this trend.

I had similar emotions when looking over a story in The Washington Post proclaiming the advent of a growing coterie of humanist clergy. Though posited as an oxymoron, the article noted that humanists -- who say there is no God and declare they can live ethical lives without a deity or scriptures to guide them -- need leaders, too. From the article:

These clergy without a God say that their movement is poised to grow dramatically right now, as American young adults report a lack of religious belief in higher numbers than ever before, but also yearn for communal ties and a sense of mission in a tumultuous time.“Even more since the election, we have folks say, ‘I’m really looking for a way either to feel hope or to do justice,'” [conference organizer Amanda] Poppei said. The Sunday after the presidential election, dozens of distressed liberal Washingtonians showed up at her service, and many have gotten involved in the congregation. Now, Poppei sees an opportunity for not just her community but humanists nationwide. “To me it’s just about, how can we maximize what we’re doing to allow us to take advantage of the moment right now? I believe really strongly that being a person in a community makes you a better person. America needs it.”Fueled especially by the millennial generation, the portion of Americans who say they don’t ascribe to any particular religion has increased dramatically, from 5 percent in 1972 to 25 percent today. A small portion of those 25 percent identify as atheist or agnostic. The rest tend to describe themselves using terms like “spiritual but not religious” or just “nothing in particular.”

The Post item is resonating in other quarters, it appears. Maine's Portland Press-Herald picked it up, and perhaps other papers have or will do so. It has the "man-bites-dog" quality of many click-worthy news articles. In this case we are talking about self-proclaimed "God-less" clergy. This is also a story that has been written many times. It's a trend that journalists have been seeing on the horizon for quite some time now.

But how widespread a phenomenon is it, really? Even the Post acknowledges that this affects only "a small portion" of the 25 percent of Americans who claim no religious affiliation or "identify as atheist or agnostic." How small? How significant? Is there any way to measure the growth?

I ask because, like the aforementioned "Year of the LAN," this isn't the first time the Post has heralded a humanistic congregation's rise. Go back to December 2007, when the paper looked at "Believers in Community," hinting at growth in the sector: 

Statistics suggest that many atheists find a role for religion in their lives. According to a survey released in July [2007] by the Barna Group, a religious polling firm, 36 percent said they had prayed to God in the previous week even though they identified themselves as atheists. Five percent said they had read the Bible in the previous week.The number of atheists remains low. According to last year's General Social Survey by the National Opinion Research Center, 2.1 percent of respondents said they do not believe in God.; 4.3 percent said they are agnostic -- that they are not sure whether God exists and don't think there was any way to find out.

So we've gone from 2.1 percent as atheist and 4.3 percent agnostic in 2007 via the NORC, to "a small portion," unspecified. Forgive me if I don't see an ordained humanist tsunami just yet.

Missing from the latest Post report -- and from its predecessor article, for that matter -- is any outside academic voice, such as Stephen P. Weldon, a University of Oklahoma professor who has studied the history of humanism for the past 20 years. Ironically, Weldon was quoted in a 2001 Post article about humanistic Judaism, which is not available online. (I found it via

Weldon's voice, or another academic's, would have been a welcome addition to the story. Context is vital, I believe, to understanding how big or important a particular group is. Here, there's little in the way of context.

If I were the assigning editor, I'd ask the reporter to go back and get some more voices, some clearer statistics and more of a sense of direction. "A small portion" just doesn't cut it, in my view. And to herald 2017 as the "Year of Humanist Clergy" takes me back to those tech-conference days when the "Year of the LAN" was proclaimed again and again, until one day, it actually happened with virtually no fanfare.

Image with blog post: Sincere Kirabo, American Humanist Association; John Croft, Ethical Society of St. Louis; Chris Steadman, Yale University Humanist Director, at the Humanist Clergy Collaboratory in Washington, D.C. Photo via American Humanist Association on Twitter.

Categories: Main

Breaking news from Indy Star: Christian schools tout, um, Christian beliefs and behavior

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Journalists have a real hard time reporting on certain subjects in an evenhanded manner.

Some that come to mind: Abortion. Religious liberty. School vouchers.

I first covered the voucher debate in 1999 as an education reporter for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily.

I'm thinking about the voucher issue again after reading a recent Indianapolis Star that — especially in the headline and lede — seems to favors the opponents. But please tell me if I'm mistaken.

This is the headline that struck me the wrong way:

How taxpayers pay for religious education

And the overly negative lede:

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.Those admissions standards reflect arguably the most controversial aspect of Indiana’s voucher program, also known as school choice scholarships. The GOP-driven program allows religious schools to receive public funds. At the same time, those private schools can reject students who don't affirm certain religious precepts — and impose religious requirements on those who are accepted.

Is it me or does the newspaper seem intent on casting the voucher program — specifically faith-based schools' involvement in it — in a poor light? Who wrote the headline and the lede: a public teachers union or the Indy Star? It's difficult to tell.

Please don't misunderstand me: I'm not suggesting that the newspaper should ignore opponents' concerns about vouchers. They're a necessary and crucial part of the debate.

What I'm saying, though, is that a headline like "How taxpayers pay for religious education" is not fair and balanced journalism. Imagine a headline at the other extreme: "How taxpayers avoid failing public schools." Would that title survive the Indy Star's editing process?

Or what if the lede recited all the ills of public schools and the lack of values-focused education that some families seek to avoid? 

My point is this: The Indy Star could do a whole lot better job at not showing its hand. (Of course, that may be asking too much from this particular newspaper.)

Regrettably, the slanted headline and lede may keep some readers from making it deeper into the story.

Read the whole thing, and the paper actually does a pretty nice job of giving voucher supporters an opportunity to present their side:

At Colonial Christian, which last year received $340,000 in state dollars, the school is “very clear about who we are up front with every family,” said Kevin Suiter, the school’s administrator.The school’s website reflects that transparency, where along with the same-sex ban, it states families must "faithfully attend" the school’s parent church, Colonial Hills Baptist Church, or a like-minded congregation.“We’ve been advised on legal grounds if that is our Biblical conviction we need to communicate that with folks before they go through the admissions process,” Suiter said.Suiter sees the voucher program as a use of the “people’s money.” Families who receive vouchers are taxpayers and part of that money goes toward education. Now, those tax dollars can follow students to their chosen school, and he’s seen families benefit whose income limitations previously meant they homeschooled for a Christian education.

Your turn, GetReligion readers: Do you share my journalistic concerns about the headline and lede? Or am I being too hard to the Indy Star?

By all means, please reply in the comments section or by tweeting us at @GetReligion. But remember that we're concerned about media coverage, not your personal opinion for or against vouchers.

Image via

Categories: Main

Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The question came up again last week, at the same point in my "Journalism Foundations" syllabus where it always does every semester -- during my lecture on Stephen Colbert and the role of humor and entertainment in today's news marketplace.

First there is this question: In his original show on Comedy Central, who was Colbert satirizing while playing a blow-hard conservative pundit with the power ties, dark suits and the "I calls 'em like I sees 'em" no-spin attitude? Whose style and worldview was he turning inside-out?

It usually takes a few seconds, but then someone -- usually a student who was raised in a Fox News home -- will say, "Bill O'Reilly."

That leads to the next question: What is the name of the cultural and political philosophy that drives the editorial policies of O'Reilly and many, but not all, of the giants associated with the world of Rupert Murdoch?

Students always start off by saying, "conservative." Then I say: That's too vague. There are many kinds of conservatism in American politics. What kind of conservative is O'Reilly?

Students usually add something like "right-wing," "ultra" or "fanatic." Eventually, someone will say "libertarian." A student or two may have paid attention to the show and know that this means that O'Reilly leans left, or remains silent, on moral and cultural issues, but is hard right on matters of economics and everything else. His worldview is defined by radical individualism.

We then talk about other kinds of conservatism and, in particular, the fact that Fox News -- which has a massive following among all kinds of conservatives -- offers little or no news and commentary on religious events and trends. There are some moral and cultural conservatives in the operation, but they were not the dominant voices in the Roger Ailes era.

As you may have guessed, this leads us to the massive New York Times story that exploded into social media the other day, the one with this dramatic double-decker headline:

Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add UpAbout $13 million has been paid out over the years to address complaints from women about Mr. O’Reilly’s behavior. He denies the claims have merit.

It's logical to ask: What does religion have to do with this story?

I would answer by saying, "I don't know."

However, my observation is that the Times team stacks up all kinds of facts -- many, but not all, with on-the-record sources -- that certainly seem to show that O'Reilly acts like he is a moral free agent when it comes to his attitudes toward women, sex and power. There are also quotes from post-Ailes Fox leaders saying they are committed to creating a safe, wholesome work environment for all.

What is missing, in my opinion, is any hint that there is a major division inside Fox News -- not just between news people and opinion people, but between people who get religion and those who have little or no interest in doing so. Does this have anything to do with a divide between clashing conservative camps, with O'Reilly and the country-club Republicans on one side and the heartland, cultural conservatives on the other? Does this have anything to do with O'Reilly and all of those claims about his, well, anti-Billy Graham Rules way of life?

First, here are the basics in the torrid overture of this story:

For nearly two decades, Bill O’Reilly has been Fox News’s top asset, building the No. 1 program in cable news for a network that has pulled in billions of dollars in revenues for its parent company, 21st Century Fox.Behind the scenes, the company has repeatedly stood by Mr. O’Reilly as he faced a series of allegations of sexual harassment or other inappropriate behavior.An investigation by The New York Times has found a total of five women who have received payouts from either Mr. O’Reilly or the company in exchange for agreeing to not pursue litigation or speak about their accusations against him. The agreements totaled about $13 million.Two settlements came after the network’s former chairman, Roger Ailes, was dismissed last summer in the wake of a sexual harassment scandal, when the company said it did not tolerate behavior that “disrespects women or contributes to an uncomfortable work environment.”The women who made allegations against Mr. O’Reilly either worked for him or appeared on his show. They have complained about a wide range of behavior, including verbal abuse, lewd comments, unwanted advances and phone calls in which it sounded as if Mr. O’Reilly was masturbating, according to documents and interviews.

You get the idea.

Now, let me state clearly that I know little or nothing about O'Reilly and his show. I have never watched a complete episode of it because I cannot stand that brand of baseball-bat political commentary that claims to be adding news content (whether on Fox or MSNBC, etc.). I am more of a Brit Hume and Howie Kurtz guy, tuning in people who excelled in traditional news, and it still shows in their work. (I am glad that former GetReligionista M.Z. Hemingway will now be working some with Kurtz on his MediaBuzz show.)

How about Kirsten Powers? Yes. Peggy Noonan? Of course. I was intrigued, from time to time, by the work of Megyn Kelly, who talked about her Catholic faith quite a bit in that Vanity Fair feature that was released as she moved into superstar territory. She also stood up to the frat-house side of the Fox News operation (and in a certain GOP candidate's White House campaign).

Did anyone else note this statement from Kelly, in that feature?

“I think that there’s a spiritual component to my personality that is completely unutilized in my current job.”

The new Times piece notes that Kelly clashed with O'Reilly and Ailes.

Mr. O’Reilly was an early defender of Mr. Ailes and Fox News during that sexual harassment scandal last summer. His support remained resolute into the fall, after the company had reached agreements to settle the harassment claims. ... In November, he chided Megyn Kelly, his colleague at the time, after she described being sexually harassed by Mr. Ailes in her memoir.“If somebody is paying you a wage, you owe that person or company allegiance,” he said on his nightly show, without mentioning Ms. Kelly by name. “You don’t like what’s happening in the workplace, go to human resources or leave.”

There is much more that I could say here. However, allow me to state my main point once again: I do not know if what appears to be a Fox News divide between moral conservatives a moral libertarians has anything to do with the allegations about the O'Reilly-Ailes axis and its dark side, to say the least, in regards to showing respect for women in the workplace. However, I do think that this would be an interesting question to ask, as Fox News tries to evolve and change.

The key is that there are many different kinds of conservatism in American life and politics. The various brands do not agree on how to approach many important subjects -- linked to journalism, religion, culture, marriage and lots of other things.

When push comes to shove, these kinds of beliefs matter. To confess my bias: As an Orthodox Christian I believe that what we believe can have consequences from time to time, in a sinful and imperfect world.

What brand of conservative is O'Reilly? Ailes? Did they clash with other brands of conservatism in that newsroom?

Journalists may want to look into that. In other words, don't assume that all conservatives believe the same things. Just saying.

Categories: Main

Oh, all those religious calendar features! But here’s a good bet for Good Friday

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

News scribes face the perennial task of devising features pegged to major dates on religious calendars.

Due to the somber and difficult theme, perhaps the most challenging is Good Friday -- Great and Holy Friday for Orthodoxy, whose date of April 14 coincides with other Christians’ in 2017.  One rarely sees a fresh, first-class media article about the day Christ died.   

Relief is on the way this year, thanks to “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ” by Fleming Rutledge, proclaimed the “2017 Book of the Year” by Christianity Today magazine and newly reissued in paperback by Eerdmans. Sample chapter headings: “The Godlessness of the Cross.” “The Question of Justice.” “Condemned into Redemption.”

The Religion Guy has not, at this point, read this Episcopalian’s 696-pager and relies on those who have. Hosannas come from across the ecclesiastical spectrum. Robert Imbelli of Boston College deems the work “remarkable,” indeed “monumental.” “Wonderful,” exclaims Richard Mouw of Fuller Seminary. Pastor Andrew Wilson of King’s Church, London, calls it “extraordinary,” and “full of imagery and pathos, illustration and contemporary application.”

England’s Bishop Peter Forster says Rutledge’s work is especially important for “American Christianity, which evades the cross” or repackages Good Friday as what Rutledge calls “inspirational uplift -- sunlit, backlit, or candlelit.” Virginia Seminary’s Katherine Sonderegger says “the whole world stands under her gaze -- literary examples, political folly and cruelty, horrendous evils of war and torment and torture, religious timidity and self-deception. ...”

Consider what Rutledge calls “the living significance” of this ancient execution: Why exactly did Christ die? Did the crucifixion display God’s wrath, or God’s love, or human depravity, or some combination thereof? How could a great injustice bring justice? How could an emblem of shame produce glory?  Why does a death 2,000 years ago carry such power today, and why is that more true in the developing world than the West?

Though these matters are complex by nature, Rutledge aims at clarity and is an engaging writer. She’s a good bet to focus things in plain English via an interview, since her intent is to make the Christian belief “accessible,” especially for those “who think they have no faith, or have inadequate faith.”

Duke University’s Stanley Hauerwas says this is “a work of a lifetime.” Indeed, Rutledge has pondered and preached on the cross for more than 20 years, issuing along the way other Holy Week tomes. The chapter on Christ’s “descent into hell” alone took her two years.

Rutledge is an interesting story in and of herself. By family heritage and career she’s fully embedded in “mainline” Protestantism, in fact ranks as one of its heroines because she was among the first women regularly ordained to the Episcopal priesthood (January, 1977). But this wife of 58 years and mother of two is firmly planted in her denomination’s waning but vibrant theologically orthodox wing, which gains her a hearing among “evangelical” Protestants and Catholics.

After 14 years of parish ministry in Manhattan, and shorter stints in Salisbury, Conn., and Rye, N.Y., Rutledge turned to a career as an itinerant teacher, preacher and teacher of preachers based in remote Alford, Mass., journeying across the U.S., Canada, and Britain. Her Web site: To request review copies or interviews: or 616–459-4591.

Categories: Main

From 'van man' to man of God: Finally, a ghost-free profile of quirky Detroit Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris

Monday, April 3, 2017

My three favorite holidays: Thanksgiving. Christmas. Opening Day.

I'm on vacation from my regular job this week and headed — as soon as I can type this post and throw a few baseball shirts and jeans into a suitcase — to Arlington, Texas. My beloved Texas Rangers open the 2017 season at home tonight against the defending American League champion Cleveland Indians.

If you need me, I'll be Section 115, Row 33, Seat 5.

Given the peanuts-and-Cracker Jacks nature of this Monday, it seems only appropriate that I critique a baseball story — and thanks to my friend Ron Hadfield, an avid Detroit Tigers fan, I've got a terrific one to highlight.

"Here's one Detroit sportswriter unafraid to write about a player's faith," Hadfield said in sharing a link to this story:

#Tigers left-hander Daniel Norris is a man beyond the van. Our 2017 season preview feature:

— Detroit Free Press (@freep) April 2, 2017

If you're a baseball fan and a GetReligion reader (by my rough count, there are three of  you), I know what you're thinking about this ghost-free Detroit Free Press profile of Tigers pitcher Daniel Norris.

And I agree: It's about time someone in the mainstream press delved into Norris' faith and took it seriously. We've been begging for this since Norris first burst onto the national scene with an in-depth ESPN the Magazine profile two years ago:

.@ESPNMag's "Man in the Van" feature: fascinating. But oh, so many holy ghosts: #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) March 9, 2015

Later that same season, I did some behind-the-scenes ghostbusting and interviewed Norris for The Christian Chronicle — answering a key question that ESPN ignored:

Revisiting ESPN's Man in the Van: Why was this pitcher baptized in his baseball uniform?:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) September 22, 2015

The reason behind it all. #2peter318

— Daniel Norris (@DanielNorris18) September 21, 2015

Still, ghosts kept haunting baseball writers' features about Norris:

Detroit #Tigers pitcher with cancer believes in 'power of prayer,' but why?: #MLB

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) October 20, 2015

God and baseball: Why sportswriters keep ignoring this #MLB pitcher's Christian faith:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) January 28, 2016

But the Free Press story that Hadfield shared focuses on presenting a more nuanced portrait of Norris — from his serious passion for baseball to, yes, his deep commitment to his faith:

The biggest moment of his final season in a Science Hill High School baseball uniform didn’t come on the field. It came immediately after a 14-strikeout, one-hitter in the state playoffs, when Norris went up to his brother-in-law and told him he needed to get baptized.That night.“Just knowing him, it didn’t really surprise me,” Tim Haywood said.Throughout Norris’ teenage years, Haywood – who is married to Norris’ older sister Amanda – was his right-hand man in taking the next step in Christianity, which led him to connecting with former All-Star Josh Hamilton late in high school.A sports agency who was pursuing Norris put them on the phone, and they ended up talking for more than two hours about faith. Once or twice a week, Hamilton would text Norris a verse of the week. Sometimes, the messages came every day.One text from Hamilton, encouraging Norris to remember 2 Peter 3:18, resonated most: “By growing the grace in our Lord, he’ll be the glory now and forever.”

Keep reading, and the Free Press offers additional revealing details about Norris' Christian journey. I'd copy and paste a few more snippets, but I'm in a hurry to hit the road, so do you mind clicking the link and reading the rest yourself?

It's an interesting, insightful story — a perfect treat for Opening Day.

Homepage image via Daniel Norris' Twitter profile

Categories: Main

When Jews leave the Orthodox fold: The New York Times magazine profiles the exiles

Monday, April 3, 2017

I’ve seen my fair share of stories about children raised in strict religious environments in all sorts of settings, but one group I’ve not read much about is ultra-Orthodox Jews. I once caught a glimpse of that lifestyle when I was invited to services at a Chasidic synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway,  then dinner at a friend’s place in Crown Heights, a Brooklyn neighborhood heavily populated by followers of the late Lubavitch Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson.

Next door was the Jewish Children’s Museum, the largest of its kind in the country. My visit was a glimpse into a lifestyle I’d only heard about in books. To be mixing with people who came straight out of a Chaim Potok novel was beyond fascinating.

Potok, in fact, wrote several books about the struggle between faith and secularity and it’s this theme that got explored in a New York Times magazine piece this past weekend about Jews who leave the Orthodox life. It starts thus:

On Thursdays, the nonprofit organization Footsteps hosts a drop-in group for its membership of formerly ultra-Orthodox Jews, who mostly refer to themselves as “off the derech.” “Derech” means “path” in Hebrew, and “off the derech,” or O.T.D. for short, is how their ultra-Orthodox families and friends refer to them when they break away from these tight-knit, impermeable communities, as in: “Did you hear that Shaindel’s daughter Rivkie is off the derech? I heard she has a smartphone and has been going to museums.” So even though the term is burdened with the yoke of the very thing they are trying to flee, members remain huddled together under “O.T.D.” on their blogs and in their Facebook groups, where their favored hashtag is #itgetsbesser -- besser meaning “better” in Yiddish. Sometimes someone will pop up on a message board or in an email group and say, “Shouldn’t we decide to call ourselves something else?” But it never takes. Reclamations are messy.At the drop-in session I attended, 10 men and women in their 20s and 30s sat around a coffee table. Some of them were dressed like me, in jeans and American casualwear, and others wore the clothing of their upbringings: long skirts and high-collared shirts for women; black velvet skullcaps and long, virgin beards and payot (untrimmed side locks) for men. Half of them had extricated themselves from their communities and were navigating new, secular lives. But half still lived among their Hasidic and ultra-Orthodox sects in areas of New York City, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and were secretly dipping their toes into the secular world attending these meetings, but also doing things as simple as walking down the street without head coverings, or trying on pants in a clothing store, or eating a nonkosher doughnut, or using the internet. They had families at home who believed they were in evening Torah learning sessions, or out for a walk, or at synagogue for evening prayers. On the coffee table were two pizzas, one kosher, one nonkosher. The kosher pizza tasted better, but only a couple of people ate it.

Thus, the reader is introduced, through a series of short vignettes, to several members of Footsteps or the people they know: The folks trapped in arranged marriages they had sleepwalked their way into; the two sisters who had both committed suicide; the Israeli woman who went through with an Orthodox wedding, but refused to consummate it; another woman who serves as a prostitute to Orthodox men and so on.

Leaving such communities is incredibly difficult, the reporter writes, partly because so many of them use Yiddish as the lingua franca, meaning that youngsters are on the same level as immigrants in grasping English. The reporter asks:

What kind of person wants to leave safety and start from the beginning, sounding different from everyone else, not knowing what to say, not knowing how to make a living -- not knowing how to read past a sixth-grade level, because English is taught as an afterthought, if at all, in many of these schools?

The people I met on my visit to Crown Heights were not like this, as far as I knew, but they were only a few steps removed from those who were.

Then, in the middle of the story, the writer goes into her own Orthodox background. Now we are on different territory, in terms of journalism.

It was clear to everyone that religious practice just never took with me, and I waited out my time in my house until the day I left for college, when I swore I’d never wear a skirt again or rush around in anticipation of sundown on a supposed day of rest. I swore I would rid myself of the vestiges of what was taught to me, which was to be afraid of an angry God who made me a certain way and then disavowed that way in the hope that I’d be some ideal of a person who committed arbitrary acts of blind devotion -- eating kosher food only; not turning the lights on during Saturdays; not wearing linen and wool together, which is an actual and serious Torah law. I’ve been only marginally successful in keeping this oath.

Note: Few journalists get the luxury of explaining how a story personally impacts them. The more I read and re-read the article, the more it felt like the reporter was still working through the suicide of Faigy Mayer, a 29-year-old woman and Footsteps member whose family had rejected her after she’d left Orthodoxy. Mayer’s 20-story jump to her death is the lodestone to which the story returns again and again.

The story has a happy ending -- as happy as a story like this can hope to have -- but the prognosis for a lot of the unhappy young adults in this story is anything but cheery. The unspoken point: That separation from one's family is something very few people ever get over, is quite clear. Not so clear is the question the reporter is posing to the Orthodox families who hover like ghosts in this piece: Is your adherence to your religion's rules worth the life of your child?

Apparently so, for some families. At the beginning of the piece, the reader gets a glimpse of the vicious gossip that travels through such communities and which destroys the reputations of any families whose kids don't toe the line. And if one child deviates, the marriage possibilities of their siblings are jeopardized. No one wants to marry into such a family, is how the thinking goes.

This is crucial: When a form of religious faith is centered on the family, leaving it is almost like dying. It's small wonder that those who've been shunned by their families feel that God has shunned them too.

I don't know if it's just a coincidence that Passover begins in a week, but don't you think it's interesting that the magazine timed the article to run just before the Jewish holiday that, more than any other, acknowledges the role of the family?

Categories: Main

New York Times offers lots of whispers (hint, hint) about Pence's patient waiting game

Monday, April 3, 2017

Sooooooo ... Did anyone read the OTHER big mainstream news feature involving the vice president?

There was, of course, that tsunami of digital ink about Mike and Karen Pence and their attempts to follow the marital example of Billy Graham rather than Bill Clinton. But there was also a long New York Times feature the other day about the vice president that ran with this calm, friendly headline: "Amid White House Tumult, Pence Offers Trump a Steady Hand."

GetReligion readers can read this report in one of two ways.

First of all, it does contain obvious references to the rather striking differences -- at the level of personal style and, by implication, faith and character -- between President Donald Trump and his squeaky clean evangelical vice president. This led to some nice turns of phrase, such as Pence being a "Hill-wise former Indiana congressman who is typically a palliative presence in an administration of piranhas." Hold that thought.

At the same time, you can read this story as a kind of Game of Thrones parable. Note, for example, that the Times team may have broken some kind of journalism record for the number of off-the-record sources used in an article about a vice president. This is one of those stories that delights inside the Beltway politicos, forcing them to grab a high-lighter pen and play the old "name that White House aide" game.

Read this way, Pence is seen as a kind of quiet, wise Washington pro who is waiting for the other Trump shoe to drop. Thus, the Times notes that "Mr. Pence’s dad-in-the-Norman Rockwell-painting demeanor masks a shrewd political intelligence." In the current White House, Pence is "jarringly out of place, a clean-cut 1950s Republican cheerfully navigating the chaotic 'Mad Max' landscape."

The implication, of course (one senses the presence of Democrats starting research for attacks on a Pence presidency) is that Pence has been muddied just by agreeing to play ball with Trump in the first place.

This is where the religion angle starts to show up.

That’s the challenge he’s faced since accepting the job of Mr. Trump’s straight-man running mate last summer. Many Pence advisers, including his wife, Karen, were wary of the offer.“I come from a family of preachers,” said Representative Elijah E. Cummings, Democrat of Maryland, who served with Mr. Pence in the House and still communicates with him regularly. “He is an honorable man. He is a Christian man. But there’s going to come a time when the Trump storm is over, and you have spent all this time defending him and repeating the stuff Trump has said. What’s he going to do when his credibility is shot?”

If one reads between the lines in this story -- which exactly what readers are supposed to do -- one of the subplots is that the Trump White House is actually not very friendly to the causes favored by millions of culturally conservative religious believers who held their noses and voted for the morally complicated (to say the least) New York billionaire.

Read the story with that in mind and Pence appears to me a smart DC guy who is being careful not to show his cards too early.

... (Pence) has held his capital in reserve, choosing to tread lightly on certain issues, according to a person with direct knowledge of the discussions, not campaigning aggressively for defunding Planned Parenthood in the renewed health care bill discussions, for instance.Much of the time he simply seemed out of the loop, Mr. Trump’s man-who-knew-too-little sidekick. Mr. Pence’s philosophy, according to several White House staff members, is that he is a team player who has signaled that he needs to know only what Mr. Trump wants him to know.

Of course, that is one way -- humble, but smart -- for Pence to keep his hands clean.

But here is the passage that evangelicals in Beltway land are sure to be discussing, including those who may have played off-the-record games with the Times team:

Mr. Pence’s relationship with Mr. Trump is more respectful than familial, people close to both men said. They have worked out an odd-couple shtick in public, but the stark cultural differences are obvious. The president briefly tried to curb his use of expletives in front of his religious vice president but has reverted to four-letter form -- and Mr. Pence, who is fond of joining colleagues for moments of shared prayer, has been less religiously demonstrative around Mr. Trump, aides say.“There is quite a contrast between Mike and the president,” said Representative Luke Messer, an Indiana Republican who currently occupies Mr. Pence’s congressional seat. “Trump does not sound like a Hoosier -- he says things I wouldn’t say, he picks fights I wouldn’t pick. But their relationship really works.”

So what's the big idea here, other than this story's 5-star journalism style guide to how to semi-identify anonymous sources without giving readers any real information that indicates who is playing who?

It would appear that people some at the Times realize that, while there were a few religious conservatives among the steady Trump loyalists, there are lots of believers who agreed to play along because (a) they thought Hillary Clinton would be even worse, in terms of impact on their most cherished (think Supreme Court) beliefs, and (b) they knew that if Trump was pushed out, or fell on his own, that would place Pence in the Oval Office.

Will the most powerful folks in mainstream journalists be as kind to Pence at that hypothetical turn in the road as they were in this feature?

Readers, what is your answer to that question, after seeing the Acela zone reaction to news about some of the conservative details of Mike and Karen Pence's marriage?

Categories: Main

News ghosts on the march: Thinking about cohabitation and the ties that don't bind

Sunday, April 2, 2017

There are times when it's easy to forget how many moral and cultural changes have taken place in North America, and the world, during the past half century or so.

When it comes to news, the tendency is to focus on stories that create the flashiest headlines. In the world of religion news, most of those have focused on LGBTQ issues. How many reporters will flock to the scene when the Episcopal Church consecrates its first trans bishop? Quite a few, it is safe to say.

However, when you look at statistics, even bigger changes have been taking place elsewhere -- among the lives and, from a biblical point of view, the sins of others. For example, if you talk to pastors -- in the most conservative, traditional churches -- you will discover that one of the most divisive issues they face, week after week, is how to handle the weddings of couples who have already been living together. Often the hottest arguments are with the parents of these young, or not so young, people.

This brings me to an interesting think piece in Christianity Today that ran with this headline: "The Three Myths of Cohabitation." As you would expect, CT knows that there are religion angles in this topic. However, for mainstream news reporters, this is a question-and-answer interview that is haunted by news angles -- national and global -- for those with the courage to cover them. Here's the overture:

According to a recent sociological study, cohabitation has a notably deleterious impact on one particular group: kids. “As marriage becomes less likely to anchor the adult life course across the globe, growing numbers of children may be thrown into increasingly turbulent family waters,” writes Bradford Wilcox in Foreign Affairs.A professor of sociology at the University of Virginia, Wilcox and his colleagues recently completed a new study, The Cohabitation-Go-Round: Cohabitation and Family Instability Across the Globe. The report is the fourth edition of the World Family Map project -- which tracks various indicators of family health -- and is sponsored in part by the Social Trends Institute and the Institute for Family Studies.The main study included the United States and 16 European countries. “We were looking at the odds that kids who were born to married or cohabitating parents will still be with their parents when they turn 12,” says Wilcox.

At the heart of the interview, obviously, are "three myths" about this widespread global trend in sex, marriage and family life.

There is no way to sum this all up. You'll just have to read the piece (which is what we want reporters and editors to do with weekend think pieces, in the first place). But here are three key bites of content:

Your colleague Laurie DeRose, a lead author in this report and a professor of sociology at Georgetown University, claims that the study contradicts three myths about cohabitation and family stability. What are those three myths?The first myth she writes about is that “cohabitation is less stable just because poorer people are more likely to choose it. In fact, cohabitation is less stable than marriage regardless of the mother’s educational background. In the overwhelming majority of countries, the most educated cohabiting parents still have a far higher rate of break-up than the lowest educated married couples.”

Next, here come myths two and three back to back:

The second myth is that “cohabitation becomes more similar to marriage as it becomes more widespread,” that in places where cohabitation becomes legally and culturally accepted, it will be just as stable as marriage. But that is not the case for children.The final myth, she writes, “is that where cohabitation has been a long-standing alternative to marriage (scholars writing on Latin America and the Caribbean refer to a ‘dual nuptiality’ system), further growth of the institution will not affect children’s lives.” Again, that’s not the case.

Like we say, read it all. This piece is, in a way, quite secular. But veteran religion-beat pros who read this are going to spot trends that clearly would have an impact in religious communities at the local level.

In other words, that's where the stories are.

Categories: Main

Washington Post on God, food, work: What did the politician say? Does that matter anymore?

Saturday, April 1, 2017

It's a question that keeps bothering me, even though I know the answer.

Why do major newspapers keep cranking up the number of opinion, analysis and commentary pieces in their daily buffet of "news" these days, even when "covering" events that in the past would have received ordinary, hard-news, "let's try to be accurate and balanced" coverage?

This phenomenon is linked to the Internet, of course, with its emphasis on attracting loyal readers who will click on your links day after day after day and then forward them on to their like-minded friends. The old business model -- exposing advertisers to as many people, and as many kinds of people, as possible -- is fading fast. More and more, news is about preaching to the choir.

Ask the people signing up all of those angry post 2016-election digital subscribers at The New York Times (I signed up in the mid-1990s). Ask the producers of the opinion-talk shows at MSNBC and Fox News. Ask the folks at BuzzFeed and Breitbart.

So how does one judge the quality of "news" that is openly labeled "analysis"? You already know that it is commentary that is going to favor one side. Do you expect the analyst to be fare to viewpoints on both sides of a debate? No. Do you expect them to be open about the worldviews of their sources? No.

But how about mere accuracy? That's the main question raised by conservative Sean Davis at The Federalist, in a piece in which he -- opening with a they don't "get religion" rally cry --  digs into a liberal Washington Post analysis piece that ran with this scorching headline: "GOP lawmaker: The Bible says ‘if a man will not work, he shall not eat’."

There's lots to discuss here, but the main Post material being debated is this:

One lawmaker is citing a godly reference to justify changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Rep. Jodey Arrington (R-Tex.) recently quoted the New Testament to question the strength of current work requirements.

The biblical passage, 2 Thessalonians 3-10, was a rebuttal to one of the hearing’s expert witnesses, a representative of the Jewish anti-hunger group MAZON. (He referenced Leviticus.) It is also a familiar refrain to anyone who has watched past debates about SNAP.

House Republicans have historically cited the verse -- “if a man will not work, he shall not eat” -- as justification for cutting some adults’ SNAP benefits. Arrington referenced the verse in a discussion about increasing the work requirements for unemployed adults on the food stamp program. But critics say that advances a pernicious myth about the unemployed who receive SNAP.

There are a few problems here, noted Davis.

There are a few problems, however, with that story from Washington Post reporter Caitlin Dewey: the lawmaker never said that, the Bible never says that, and the Washington Post article never even quotes the Texas Republican as saying that. In fact, the article doesn’t quote Arrington a single time. Not one word. Because democracy dies in darkness, or something.

Now, one of the safest things that a reporter can do, when struggling with complex material, is to simply offer readers direct quotes that put people on the record.

That's where things broke down in this case. Thus, Davis offers readers a link to the actual text, as recorded in a YouTube video (at the top of this post). The key quotes are at the end, near the 2:38 point::

I did hear, Mr. Protas, your opening remarks where you quoted Leviticus, I believe, and I think that’s a great reflection on the character of God and the compassion of God’s heart and how we ought to reflect that compassion in our lives.

But, there’s also, the scripture tells us in 2 Thessalonians 3:10: “For even when we were with you we gave you this rule: ‘If a man will not work, he shall not eat.'” And then he goes on to say, “We hear that some among you are idle.”

I think that every American, Republican or Democrat, wants to help the neediest among us. And I think it’s a reasonable expectation that we have work requirements. I think that gives more credibility quite frankly, to SNAP. Tell me what is a reasonable and responsible work requirement as part of the SNAP program?

Thus, Davis notes:

At no point did Arrington ever declare that the Bible requires that the unemployed shall not eat. Not once. At no point did Arrington ever say, “The Bible says the unemployed shall not eat.”

There is much more to this debate and I would urge GetReligion readers to check out both the commentary by Davis and the commentary by the Post.

Of course, there is my point again: Why did the major news source inside the D.C. Beltway choose to cover this hearing with an opinion piece, as opposed to a normal, balanced news story? That leads to the other question: What standards of journalism do we apply to commentary, advocacy work of this kind? Does the writer NEED to let readers know what the congressman said, in terms of a direct quote? Or does the editors get to edit according to an editorial template of what is true and what is not?

Let me know what you think, in our comments section.

Categories: Main

Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

Friday, March 31, 2017

If you asked a crowd of journalists to name two or three people who are the "faces" of the Religious Right, it's pretty easy to think of the names that would top the list.

The problem, of course, is that many of these people are either dead -- think the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly -- or they have faded from the scene, other than the occasional headline-inducing sound bite (here's looking at you, the Rev. Pat Robertson).

This knee-jerk tendency to favor the old Religious Right guard was crucial during the 2016 campaign. Why? Many elite political-beat reporters -- religion-beat pros did much better -- failed to notice that, while Donald Trump won his share of endorsements among older religious conservatives (or, well, their children), most of the rising stars on the moral right wanted little or nothing to do with him, in terms of public support.

You see, there is a problem with simplistic American political labels, when you try to stick them on religious believers. They rarely fit. While traditional religious believers tend to agree on many doctrinal issues that have political implications (think abortion, gender, the meaning of marriage), they often disagree when it comes to political solutions to problems linked to poverty, race, foreign policy, military spending, immigration, the economy, etc.

You can see this most clearly when talking about ancient forms of Christianity. Are the U.S. Catholic bishops at home with the political left or with the right? That would be the right, on sexual morality, but the left on many other issues, from immigration to health care. Is Pope Francis liberal or conservative when you are talking about hot-button issues in American life? Where is he on gender and right-to-life issues, in contrast with economics and immigration?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of this, and much more, when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our news hook, however, was not on the cultural right. Instead, we were talking about my post critiquing a Reuters report about the religious left. The original Reuters report is here.

As always, it's hard to pin accurate political labels on biblical beliefs. There are political liberals who are pro-life. There are political conservatives who are strongly pro-abortion-rights. There are conservatives who totally oppose Donald Trump's perspectives on immigration and refugees. I could go on and on. But when in doubt, keep thinking about the politics of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Label that crowd.

The other problem is even harder to describe: Who, precisely, is in the religious left and what are the issues that define them?

Well, the old guard on the religious left found unity, in the 1960s and '70s, on issues linked to racial justice and the Vietnam War. These are not the issues that divide most religious believers today, if you look inside the numbers being served up by pollsters. Instead, the ties that bind liberals together now are usually linked to the Sexual Revolution.

Meanwhile, the ecclesiastical institutions at the heart of the old religious left keep shrinking, while the ranks of atheists, agnostics and "Nones" keep expanding. The new cultural left includes just as many, if not more, nonreligious people as it does people with liberal doctrinal beliefs -- Jewish, Christian or whatever.

Barack Obama was a perfect candidate for politicos on both sides of that coalition, especially with his doctrinally skeptical but stylistically warm approach to oldline Protestant liberalism (click here for a 2004 flashback on his famous "Awesome God" speech). But Obama is, sort of, on the margins right now. Maybe he will lead the European Union or the United Nations someday, making him eligible for "face of" the religious left status again.

Meanwhile, in what sense is the religious left on the rise? This is, after all, a story floated in major newsrooms year after year, decade after decade. I appreciated a Religion Dispatches piece by liberal Daniel Schultz that questioned this whole idea of religious liberals getting their act together these days. He writes:

Oh, yeah? Is that like the time they were emerging in 2006?Or 2008?Or 2009?Or 2013?Those are links I found in about 30 seconds’ worth of googling. Some time spent with Lexis-Nexis would no doubt turn up many more. In case the point is not obvious, the same people have been selling the same story about this Religious Left that’s going to be here any minute now! for a very long time. Hell, I’ve even been a part of some of those efforts. And yet the movement never does arrive.

Why is that?

Well, once again, who are the charismatic leaders of the religious left? What personalities take the lead, in this crowd?

Hey, GetReligion readers, who would you nominate for this role?

It has to be someone with vague or clearly liberal views on faith, but with a commitment to liberal views on morality and politics. It would help if this person could (think Obama) unite white liberals with more traditional religious believers in African-American and Latino pews. This person also needs media clout and star power. Kind of an anti-Hillary Clinton.

Well, how about -- you know -- Oprah?

This feature -- "Oprah Winfrey isn’t ruling out a presidential run in 2020" -- is only one of many who have proposed that she would make a great anti-Trump, since the Democratic Party's bench is getting rather gray at the moment. The overture:

During a conversation with billionaire philanthropist and Bloomberg TV show host David Rubenstein, she suggested that President Donald Trump’s shocking electoral victory has forced her to rethink the possibility of a President Oprah Winfrey.Rubenstein asked the megastar if she ever thought she could do what Hillary Clinton could not.“Have you ever thought that, given the popularity you have, we haven’t broken the glass ceiling yet for women, that you could actually run for president and actually be elected?” Rubenstein asked.“I never considered the question even a possibility,” Oprah answered. “I thought, oh gee, I don’t have the experience, I don’t know enough. And now I am thinking: Oh.”Trump was able to secure the Republican presidential nomination because, in part, he was a wildly popular TV star. But perhaps no one -- not even Trump himself -- can compete with Oprah’s celebrity. She is the Oprah of Oprahs.

Is anyone out there laughing at this idea?

Is anyone laughing at this idea, while The Donald sits in the Oval Office?

Oprah would be the real deal, however, for the religious left -- way more than Trump is a good fit for the Religious Right. Think about it.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Infinitesimal fraction of LDS membership draws hot BuzzFeed play, without listicles or kittens

Friday, March 31, 2017

There are, according to the Mormon Newsroom website, 15.6 million members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints worldwide, as the group is officially known. In the United States, the same media-facing website says, there are 6.5 million LDS Church members.

But forget the millions of U.S.-based Mormons who do wonderful, creative (see: Sterling, Lindsey) and useful things in the world. To some journalism outlets, reporting that would be about as exciting as touting a Spotify playlist of Donny Osmond singles.

Instead, let's join BuzzFeed, the advocacy journalism, listicle-and-kitten picture website and look at maybe five LDS Church members, and their reasonably small Twitter followings (22,000 for the top person), for a touchstone on this organization.

Hint: the five Mormons on which they focus hold various "alt-right" beliefs, some of which are viewed by many people as racist. Seems fair, right?

If it doesn't seem fair, you're not alone. If it does seem like "clickbait," a term adhering to BuzzFeed with the tenacity of a Gulf Coast vacation timeshare salesman, welcome to the club.

The BuzzFeed report is titled "Meet The (Alt-Right) Mormons: Inside The Church's Vocal White Nationalist Wing." Diving in: 

Last week, an alt-right blogger who goes by the name Ayla had a bone to pick."Mormonism and Utah are the next target for cultural destruction," she wrote on her blog Nordic Sunrise, and the culprit is "black, ghetto culture."Her comment came in a post titled "Mormon 'Rap' and the Destruction of White, Western, Mormon Culture." It was jarring; Mormons are known for their moderate positions on issues like immigration and diversity, famously putting them at odds with now-President Trump. Extreme movements such as the alt-right — which catapulted into the public consciousness on a wave of support for Trump, Pepe memes, and white nationalism — are anathema to many members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS).And while Mormons have rejected Trump's brand of conservatism, thanks in large part to the president's more controversial positions, Ayla's comments represent a growing Mormon subculture that embraces the alt-right, at times openly cheering white nationalism, and intertwining ultra-conservative ideology with Mormon history, culture, and scripture.

OK, Ayla, who has videos on YouTube and had an Instagram account (now deleted), holds positions that many would find odious. And she's up to just under 22,000 Twitter followers, provided you can get to her account. (One of my Twitter accounts was blocked from seeing her tweets, but I used another. Both accounts, by the way, feature my real surname and real picture.)

Another of the alleged "alt-right" Mormons, who uses the name of a deceased leader, "J. Reuben Clark," as his Twitter handle, has all of 497 people following his Tweets. I'm not exactly getting a sense of a mass movement here, people. A third alleged alt-right Mormon Twitter member has a grand total of 64 followers. Sixty-four.

Cue the revolution. #NOT

LDS Church President Thomas S. Monson has 209,000 Twitter followers; his counselors Henry B. Eyering and Dieter F. Uchtdorf, each considered apostles by the LDS faithful, also boast six-figure followings. Among the Mormons I've known and come across, I have to believe Monson, Eyering and Uchtdorf are exponentially more respected and listened to than Ayla. 

The BuzzFeed presentation of this story, overwrought, connected to all sorts of white nationalist figures and buzzwords, is certainly sensational. It was the inspiration for a pickup piece in The Salt Lake Tribune (of which more in a moment) and then Britain's highly restrained Daily Mail jumped into the fetid swamp with this hair-on-fire headline: "Mommy blogger turned alt right poster girl: Mormon mom-of-six causes outrage by urging her thousands of followers to back her 'white baby challenge' and have children to stop 'black ghetto culture.'"

However, let's go back to one of the local daily newspapers at ground zero for the LDS Church. After summarizing the basics of Ayla's  message, which includes a denunciation of accepting refugees from the Middle East, Trib reporter Peggy Fletcher Stack adroitly gets to the heart of the issue. Top LDS officials have:

... already spoken out publicly in defense of refugees, even launching an initiative known as "I Was a Stranger." The Utah-based faith favors immigration reform, urging lawmakers to strive to keep families together. And its message promotes diversity."We believe all people are God's children and are equal in his eyes and in the church," reads the official statement posted on the faith's website. "We do not tolerate racism in any form. ... We condemn racism, including any and all past racism by individuals both inside and outside the church."

In short, Ayla and company are severe outliers, way the heck outside the mainstream of Mormonism. It might stun the BuzzFeed folks to hear this, but there are people holding unsavory political and even racial views in just about every religious community on Earth. They're generally referred to as weirdos and are often shunned by their co-religionists. 

The journalism issue is how to position the story of Ayla in terms of the much, much larger general LDS population. Apart from quoting the understandably shocked responses of Mormons who hail from outside the United States or who are members of the Democratic Party, BuzzFeed does little to suggest that this is about as far from mainstream Mormonism as Tierra del Fuego is from the Salt Lake Temple.

I'd attach a #FAIL to what BuzzFeed did with this piece. It's sensationalism and it doesn't illuminate. Trib reporter Stack brings in a range of voices, including some black members of the LDS Church who have concerns about the attitudes Ayla and her colleagues express, but she also quotes experts and church leaders to show that the "mommy blogger" is nowhere near the mainstream.

Such diligent digging is what journalism is all about. It's something BuzzFeed might want to consider trying.

Categories: Main

Mike Pence will not meet alone with a woman, so the online left flips out?

Friday, March 31, 2017

When does a rather ordinary news profile turn into a mass-media panic?

When it’s in a Washington Post feature about Karen Pence, wife of Vice President Mike Pence.

I covered this two days ago in that finally -- after zillions of fawning pieces about Hillary and Michelle -- a major newspaper had profiled the Second Lady. I had no idea that one sentence in the story would create a Twitter mob scene. Part way down the story, a Post reporter mentioned that Mike Pence has a policy of never dining alone with a woman nor attending an event where alcohol is served without Karen by his side.

Ka-boom. The mockery began.

Social media went nuts, excoriating Pence for being such a Neanderthal and worse. There were references to sharia law, for example. BBC asked: “Are Mike Pence’s Dining Habits Chivalrous or Sexist?” Clara Jeffery, editor of Mother Jones, fired off at least 15 angry tweets on the topic during a period of high dudgeon on Wednesday afternoon. Naturally, The Onion weighed in had something so unprintable, I’m declining to link to it. Guess I get tired of media slinging the F-bomb around like it’s candy from a parade. That was pretty common during this Twitter tsunami.

The comments cascaded to a point that the Post did two pieces solely on reaction to the article. Gotta make click-bait hay while the digital sun shines. 

Here's the original Tweet:

Mike Pence never dines alone w a woman not his wife, nor does he attends events w alcohol, w/o her by his side.

— Ashley Parker (@AshleyRParker) March 29, 2017

Former GetReligionista Mollie Hemingway covered the contretemps via The Federalist, pointing out that such cautions are rather commonplace in certain quarters, particularly the religious world:

Anyway, is Mike Pence a monster for not dining privately with women who are not his wife? What about not boozing it up at parties unless his wife is around? Not only is he not a monster, he sounds like he’s a smart man who understands that infidelity is something that threatens every marriage and must be guarded against.

Emma Green of The Atlantic explained how Orthodox Jews and many Muslims have similar rules about men and women not being alone in a room and noted that politicians like the thrice-married Newt Gingrich might have done well to have had such a rule. She wrote:

Socially liberal or non-religious people may see Pence’s practice as misogynistic or bizarre. For a lot of conservative religious people, though, this set-up probably sounds normal, or even wise. The dust-up shows how radically notions of gender divide American culture. ...That some people are so quick to be angered -- and others are totally unsurprised -- shows how divided America has become about the fundamental claim embedded in the Pence family rule: that understandings of gender should guide the boundaries around people’s everyday interactions, and protecting a marriage should take precedence over all else, even if the way of doing it seems strange to some, and imposes costs on others.

One of the comments on her Twitter feed suggested that American history might have been different had Bill Clinton adhered to Mike Pence policy.

Then there’s a 2015 piece on the “Billy Graham Rule” via Christianity Today that explains the history behinds the practice. It also admits how women get shortchanged, as a result:

As a researcher who focuses on female Christian leaders, I hear it over and over. The first female vice president of a Christian organization confessed she missed out on opportunities to advance her projects because the president made businesses decisions over lunch, and he promised his wife he wouldn’t eat lunch alone with women. It was enough to make her want to quit. A female pastor in Minnesota told me about being overlooked for staff development opportunities, while the lead pastor invested in her male coworkers. A female seminary professor shared the too-familiar struggle of trying to find a mentor among her all-male colleagues.

Personally? I hate it. Years ago, I asked my pastor if I could meet him for lunch on Capitol Hill. I was a reporter and editor in Washington, DC. He would come to the Hill to meet with male politicians, so I wanted to show him the Senate press gallery and explain what journalists do for a living.

But he arrived with a female clergywoman in tow. I icily informed him that I wasn’t aware that we needed a chaperone. This was broad daylight on the Hill, not some nightclub.

To make matters worse, he said it was policy in our Episcopal diocese that male clergy couldn’t dine alone with a woman. The next day, I called the diocese to see if that was true. Officials there incredulously heard my story, then denied there was any such policy. I eventually left that church.

So I get why many women despise this policy. But I have seen examples of people in the secular world saying that it’s not a bad idea.

Click on this 2003 piece from Salon graciously provided via Twitter (hat tip to Bob Smietana) that tells of the almost-affair the author had with someone 6,000 miles away. The memorable take-away line:

Affairs do not begin with kisses; they begin with lunch. Or something like it. 

Also, think of all the anti-sexual harassment workshops -- primarily targeting males -- out there in academia. And the new normal in church life post Catholic sexual abuse crisis: Open doors or windows in the doors. Scheduling meetings in public places with more than two people. Background checks for Sunday school workers.

The saddest part of is how this media meltdown goes along with the Donald Trump playbook about the mendaciousness of the press. Who in their right mind in that administration will cooperate with a reporter after this?

Those in the secular media need to get a grip on how people in conservative religious circles think and live. If they’re going to be shocked by Mike and Karen Pence, then get indignant over how some rabbis and other Jewish men will refuse to shake a woman’s hand when being introduced. Ditto for some men in Islam.

Never heard of that? Then read up on the world of religion, where the rules may be different, but sometimes they make sense. Once again, you don't have to agree with a belief to attempt to understand the people who believe it.

Categories: Main

Gorsuch nomination rumble underscores need for religion writers to understand Constitutional law

Friday, March 31, 2017

Religion reporters need to be knowledgeable on Constitutional law because U.S. federal courts continually handle newsworthy church-and-state dust ups. That is underscored by the partisan rumble over Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch of the Denver-based 10th Circuit Court of Appeals (which will be the proverbial Sunday School picnic compared with the next Supreme Court vacancy.)   

The Left is aggrieved because Gorsuch wrote the circuit opinion favoring Hobby Lobby’s bid for a religious exemption from Obamacare’s mandatory birth-control coverage (the Supreme Court later agreed with him), and joined the court minority that backed similar claims from the Little Sisters of the Poor. A bit of the byplay:

Legal journalist Dahlia Lithwick typifies the critics, saying Gorsuch personifies an “alarming tendency” toward “systematically privileging the rights of religious believers” to “impose their views on others” as though their “faith must not be questioned, or even assessed.”  Evangelical attorney David French responds that in such conflicts a “human, natural, and constitutional right” properly takes priority over “a regulatory privilege.”

On Hobby Lobby, Planned Parenthood’s head protests that Gorsuch believes “bosses should be able to decide whether or not women should be able to get birth-control coverage.” A National Review editorial calls that a distortion because (1) the ruling affects only narrow cases that involve  the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and (2) in any case employers cannot prevent employees from obtaining coverage.

Gorsuch reminded senators of two cases where he supported the religious liberty of non-Christians. He wrote the opinion backing a Native American prisoner seeking access to a sweat lodge, and filed a concurring opinion supporting a Muslim prisoner’s need for halal meals.

The nominee also defended his 2006 book “The Future of Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia,” telling senators he’s concerned about what legalization “might mean for the least amongst us, the most vulnerable, the disabled, the elderly, who might be pressured into accepting an early death because it’s a cheaper option.”

Notre Dame University law professor Richard W. Garnett, who favors Gorsuch’s outlook and laments newspapers’ innovation of putting scare-quotes around the phrase “religious freedom,”  posted a primer that's useful for journalists. He puts religion disputes into four categories:

(1) Government money and other support for “secular” social activities of religious organizations, especially schools. Garnett welcomes courts’ recent openness to aid when programs are religiously “neutral.”

(2) As with Hobby Lobby and the Little Sisters of the Poor, claims of exemption from government requirements that burden religious belief. That’s the issue defined in the federal religious-freedom law that Gorsuch relied upon.  

(3) Presence of religious symbols and speech in the public square, e.g. town council prayers or park Nativity displays. Rulings are “all over the map,” but ceremonial expressions are often permitted. Gorsuch seems open to such things if they’re not coercive.

(4) A grab-bag of situations where government gets entangled in religious doctrines and disciplines. On these, Garnett suspects Gorsuch would recognize that liberty for religious groups is “not a luxury good” but “foundational to our constitutional order and democratic aspirations.”

There’s important constitutional reasoning on a different issue in the Christian Century magazine. Douglas Laycock of the University of Virginia Law School (who stands atop a reporter’s list of church-state experts) pondered  the 1954 “Johnson amendment.” Named for president-to-be Lyndon who sponsored it, this law says exempt groups under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, both religious and non-religious, cannot implicitly or explicitly endorse or oppose a political candidate. The magazine itself temporarily lost exemption for endorsing Johnson over Barry Goldwater in 1964.

Some “religious right” activists are pushing to repeal the law. Laycock makes a careful distinction here. He opposes exempt groups spending money on campaigns.  But he contends that the restriction on what preachers can say has no  financial impact and should be scuttled as an unconstitutional violation of freedom.

 (Footnotes: As a Coloradan, Gorsuch would add geographical diversity to the Supreme Court’s membership, but not alter the monopoly of Ivy League law school graduates. He’s an active Episcopal churchgoer who’d break up a court with only Catholic and Jewish justices, though CNN’s Daniel Burke reports this onetime Catholic may never have formally converted to the Episcopal Church.

Categories: Main

Satanic ritual abuse back in the news, only now these claims are being met with skepticism

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Satanic ritual abuse is back in the news, but this time around the press is doing a much better job in reporting on allegations that secret covens of satanists are abusing and murdering children in America and Britain.

Beginning with the McMartin preschool case in 1984, when KABC trumpeted the news that the operators of a Manhattan Beach nursery school had ritually abused several dozen children, much of the media accepted without question fantastic claims brought by police, parents and prosecutors. But by the early 1990s when the the courts began tossing out convictions based on recovered memories, coached testimony and magical thinking, the media backed away.

In 1991 David Shaw of the Los Angeles Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles examining the media’s coverage of the McMartin preschool trial, finding his own newspaper had failed in its duty to provide balanced, honest coverage.

In its analysis of the McMartin case, the New York Times wrote:

The verdict has produced a self-examination by the media, most notably a four-part series in The Los Angeles Times in which David Shaw, who covers the news media for the newspaper, asserted that his own newspaper consistently favored the prosecution and failed to give critical scrutiny to its charge.

Academic and government studies have subsequently found no truth in claims of organized groups abusing children for satanic ritual purposes. Some abusers have used these motifs to frighten their victims, but in the U.S. and Britain there is no such thing as ritual satanic abuse (SRA).

I qualify my statement by saying "the U.S. and Britain," in that religiously motivated ritual abuse does exist in Africa. Police have investigated incidents in the West of suspected ritual abuse committed by recent immigrants who may have brought their customs with them.

Two current stories in the U.S. and British press have resurrected SRA: the Pizzagate story from the 2016 presidential election campaign and abuse claims lodged against deceased British Prime Minister Edward Heath. However, this time round these stories are being treated with skepticism.

Last November, The Mail on Sunday reported the police investigation into Heath was imploding. The article -- “Sir Edward Heath accuser is a 'satanic sex fantasist': Police warned by OWN expert that ritual abuse claims are false” -- reported the outside expert engaged by the police to assist them with their investigations believed the claims were nonsense.

The Mail story further noted:

We can also reveal today that:*One of Heath’s accusers -- a woman -- has made astonishing claims that he was linked to a network of paedophiles who held satanic orgies and stabbed children in churches;*One of the witnesses involved in the case is the man known as Nick, whose tales of a murderous VIP paedophile ring in Westminster were initially believed by Scotland Yard -- but have now been demolished in an official review that accused police of making grave mistakes;

*There are historic links between Nick and the woman who has accused Heath;

*Expert Dr Hoskins told police that the claims are likely to be based on false memories unearthed in therapy and likened to now-discredited claims of satanic abuse that made headlines in the 1980s.

Claims of SRA had jumped in recent years, after police began soliciting alleged victims to come forward to report their abuse. The Mail stated:


Continue reading "Satanic ritual abuse is back in the news" by George Conger.

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How to cover a tragedy: San Antonio paper offers sensitive, insightful reporting on church bus crash

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Years ago, I helped cover the funerals in a small West Texas town after eight senior citizens were killed in a church bus crash.

I couldn't help but recall that heart-wrenching tragedy as news broke Wednesday of another church bus crash — this one with an even higher death toll:

Front page of today's San Antonio Express-News.

— Bobby Ross Jr. (@bobbyross) March 30, 2017

As a reporter, I always hate handling first-day stories on tragedies such as this. Pressing crash investigators for the basic details of what happened is no problem. But seeking comments from grieving loved ones is never easy. Never.

With my personal experience in my mind, I am impressed with the San Antonio Express-News' main front-page story today.

The piece offers sensitive and insightful reporting on the tragedy, which occurred in the San Antonio paper's coverage area.

The lede nicely sets the scene:

NEW BRAUNFELS — The fellowship at the senior retreat at Alto Frio Baptist Camp and Conference Center had been rewarding.The meals were good. The testimonies touched everyone. The weather of the scenic Texas Hill Country was fantastic.Then came time to leave Wednesday afternoon, and most of the 65 members of the choir group from First Baptist Church of New Braunfels got into their various cars and began the 130-mile trek back home, recounted Caroline Deavors, who was on the retreat.But not everyone had a car, she said, so 14 church members got onto the church’s small bus, driven by semi-retired middle school math teacher Murray Barrett.Deavors had a car and had a passenger with her.“They were right behind us,” Deavors said. “They left right after we did.”As she and her passenger headed south on U.S. 83, they saw a string of ambulances go by but didn’t think much about it.It wasn’t until she got home that she learned about the tragedy that had taken place behind her: Barrett and 12 bus passengers were killed when authorities said the driver of a Dodge pickup crossed the center line and hit the bus head-on about 30 miles north of Uvalde.

Sometimes, all it takes is one source — one eyewitness — to help readers understand the circumstances of a tragedy such as this. Deavors fulfills that role. 

Later in the story, the Express-News does an excellent job of describing the scene at the church:

In New Braunfels, congregation members gathered at the church, reaching out to each other in their grief.“Shock, just shock,” said Nancy Lacey, a 10-year resident of New Braunfels, as she arrived at the church Wednesday evening. “You see things like this on the news. Now it’s here.”From across the street, about three dozen members of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church held hands and walked to the First Baptist sanctuary to lend support.Amity Dohoney, 21, said she had known the bus driver since her pre-teen years. He taught her seventh- and eighth-grade math, and they remained close through the church.“He was always such an upbeat person,” she said. “He loved people. He’d do anything to help them.”Somber church members passed by as Dohoney and Deavors spoke. Nearby, little children oblivious to the adults were happily running around the playground.The normal Wednesday night service had been canceled, but many members didn’t hear about that until they arrived. They were joined in the church by others, who were drawn to the church in the wake of the tragedy.

Overall, it's just an outstanding piece of breaking-news journalism that certainly gets religion, including — and I'm just guessing here — knowing that folks would be gathered at the Baptist church on a Wednesday night.

The report ends this way:

Members of the congregation at the church were leaning on each other and their faith.“We know that everyone on that bus knew the Lord and we’ll see them again,” Lacey said, adding that the best thing people can do is “keep praying.”“There is power in prayer,” she said. “When two people gather, He’s there.”

Kudos to the Express-News.

Image via San Antonio Express-News


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