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News angles abound, as Evangelicalism’s unlikely missionary to Manhattan leaves his pulpit

Saturday, March 11, 2017

On February 26, the Rev. Timothy Keller, 66, announced to parishioners at eight Sunday services that he’ll retire July 1 as the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church. Keller is no publicity-seeking celebrity preacher, but if U.S. evangelicals were to create a Mount Rushmore Keller’s carved visage would deserve a place.

So far as The Religion Guy can discover, national media and even reporters in Keller’s own town didn’t cover this milestone, so there’s ample room for follow-ups. A good place to begin research would be solid features in The New York Times (2006) and New York Magazine (2009).

When Keller began Redeemer with a handful of people in 1989, a Manhattan mission startup was considered so dicey that two prior candidates had rejected the job offer. Keller seemed an odd choice because his only pastoral experience was in far different Hopewell, Va. Moreover, latitudinarian “mainline” Protestantism would have seemed far more marketable in Gotham than the strict orthodoxy of Keller’s Presbyterian Church in America. Yet eventually thousands of young professionals were flocking to Redeemer each Sunday.

Significant themes reporters could pursue: While many evangelical congregations have forsaken downtown for the ease of suburbia, Redeemer offers dramatic proof that city centers are not only spiritually hungry places but that biblical conservatism can thrive there under the right conditions. Against stereotypes of evangelicalism, Redeemer members volunteer time and donations with 40 organizations to help society’s marginalized, and Keller shuns Religious Right politicking and pulpit-pounding, offering instead calm, content-rich sermons. Explore this link, for example.

Then this: While many congregations sit on their successes, Redeemer is all about fostering new congregations, including ones in New York City that could provide competition. Its “City to City” church-planting operation is not only local but international, spreading the New York techniques to a growing network of 381 newly launched congregations in 54 urban centers from Prague to Phnom Penh.

Post-Keller, Redeemer is applying such missional mitosis. The main congregation, which worships in the rented Hunter College auditorium, has held satellite services on the West Side and Downtown. If a membership vote on May 20 agrees, the three congregations will become fully independent with their own lead pastors and governing elders and then, in turn, plan new Manhattan branches.

Need a hook for the newsroom "tickler"? The process begins Easter Sunday with the launch of Redeemer Lincoln Square on Central Park West. Meanwhile, Redeemer is scouting for quarters to house a new congregation on the Upper East Side, part of a projected $80 million expansion plan toward which $62 million has been pledged. 

A final story angle here is Keller’s own future. He’ll now train church planters through City to City, teach at a new extension campus of Reformed Theological Seminary that Redeemer sponsors (the first class graduates this spring) and do occasional teaching outside the pulpit for Redeemer. And he’ll likely add to his list of 11 books (Amazon.com page here) that exemplify a Redeemer slogan: “Skeptics Welcome.”  

Upsumming, here’s the most important story theme: What do analysts think was the unexpected magic that produced success in secularized Manhattan and is now proving effective worldwide?  

Categories: Main

So many journalism questions remain, about current status of evangelism and missions in India

Friday, March 10, 2017

Why is Compassion International closing its doors (for now) in India?

That was the question at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which explored some of the themes in my post this week that ran under the headline, "Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole." I would urge you to click here and read the original Times piece on this topic.

Does the Times piece tell us why Compassion is leaving India? Well, it does and it doesn't. And that is where things get complicated, for readers and listeners who have never worked in a newsroom.

Patience please, as we try to walk through this.

You see, there is evidence in this important Times piece that various officials in India are saying different things. The evidence offered can be interpreted in a number of different ways and it's pretty obvious that the Times team was asking questions that the authorities in the Bharatiya Janata Party didn't want to address. So, as public officials often do, they declined to answer questions.

So what do we know? Let's look at four different options.

(I) At one point, it appears that Compassion is being pushed out because of accusations that its work led to people converting to Christianity. The charity, to use Times language, was suspected of "engaging in religious conversion."

(II) However, at another another point, Compassion officials deny accusations that they are -- again, this is a Times paraphrase -- "funding religious conversions." Now, what does that mean? As I note in the podcast, that could mean that government officials are accusing the charity and missions group of funding programs:

(a) In which they pay people (think "rice Christians") in India -- with money, food, school funds, etc. -- to convert to Christianity.

(b) In which people in India (including Hindus and Muslims who are receiving aid from Compassion) are exposed to Christian messages and have the opportunity, through contacts with local Christian churches and ministries, to convert to the faith. This is basically the same thing as (I), mentioned above.

(III) Meanwhile, there is also a Los Angeles Times story on this topic that claims that Compassion International workers are being accused of "secretly converting children to Christianity." I guess that could be (I) or (II), only done in secret.

The implication is that Compassion workers do this in secret because it is illegal for conversions to take place in broad daylight. Right?

(IV) Wait, there is another wrinkle here. In the New York Times story there is a quote -- again, a paraphrase -- in which an anonymous Foreign Ministry official claims that Compassion partners (local churches and ministries) were being accused of "violating Indian law by engaging in religious activities."

What does that mean? Churches in India cannot engage in "religious activities"?

Yes, gets confusing. However, the goal is to figure out what is actually happening and describe it as clearly as possible (which is hard when it appears that state officials were not willing to go on the record).

So let's ask another question, a really big question: Is public evangelism now illegal in India?

Ah, but that leads to yet another question: Maybe evangelism is illegal when done by foreigners, using foreign funds? But Compassion works with local churches and ministries. Thus, one needs to ask if evangelism is now illegal in India even when the work is done by local Christians (a faith that has been in India for many centuries, even to the time of the early apostles). Native Christians can do safe, inside-the-sanctuary church things but they cannot do evangelism that leads to conversions?

Or maybe seeking conversions is illegal for some people and not others? Our own Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin emailed me to note that government officials do not object if people convert to Buddhism (as opposed to Christianity or Islam) because they view Buddhism as a native faith. By the say, St. Thomas is believed to have died in India about 70 A.D.

Meanwhile, journalists should note that Article 18 remains in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and India remains in the United Nations (along with other nations that struggle with Article 18) That's the section of the Universal Declaration (to quote it once again) that says:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

I could continue, but I think I've made my point. There is a lot of journalism work that still needs to be done if readers are going to be given a chance to understand what is happening in India.

Want yet another complication?

There is evidence that the BJP is simply cracking down on foreign-funded efforts that do all kinds of work that the party finds unacceptable. That Los Angeles Times article that I mentioned earlier focuses on officials in India attacking the work of Navsarjan, an organization (with some funding from Unitarian Universalists in America) dedicated to defending the rights of Dalits (once called "untouchables") on the lowest level of India's outlawed caste system.

Hey, even the environmental group Greenpeace was briefly on the list of foreign groups being pushed out of India.

So there is more to this than religion. However, in a nation with centuries of missionary history, changes in the status of religious freedom really matter.

So did the New York Times team probe any of these specific questions, which grow out of the reporting work in their original piece? We don't know. Maybe. Maybe not. We don't know what questions were asked, with state officials refusing to answer.

But we do know that this news story has legs.

Why? Because the Times and important voices inside India say so. Note this passage in a new story, referencing a powerful Hindu movement there:

Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ... took the rare step of rebutting Compassion International’s account of a back-channel negotiation with a representative in the United States, describing it as “unfair and totally false.” ...The statement went on to condemn a recent New York Times article as “an attempt by N.Y.T. to malign the image of R.S.S.”

Oh, and:

Charities with religious affiliations, of which Compassion International is the largest, make up more than half of the top 15 donors to India.

Stay tuned. And, as always, enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Now that Turkey's kicking out Mercy Corps, is there a God connection to it all?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Dumping American charities from some of the world’s neediest spots seems to be the in thing for foreign governments to do these days with India deciding to boot Compassion International out of the country. Tmatt covered that yesterday.

But Compassion is not alone. A Portland, Ore.,-based charity called Mercy Corps International, with a staff of 5,000 in 45 countries, is getting the heave-ho from Turkey. Mercy Corps is helping 500,000 displaced Syrians who, as everyone knows, need all the help they can get these days. But the Turks feel otherwise.

Compassion is an openly Christian group; a factor that’s been mentioned in coverage of the ouster. And so was Mercy Corps soon after its founding. 

So, here’s what the Oregonian had to say about it:

A Portland-based humanitarian agency has been forced to shutter its operations in Turkey, affecting lifesaving help for up to 500,000 people each month in neighboring Syria, according to the group.Mercy Corps used Turkey as a base for what it called "one of the largest humanitarian operations in Syria." It said the Turkish government rescinded its registration to work in the country after five years there."Our operations in Syria will continue, and our priority right now is to limit any adverse effects our departure from Turkey may have on the innocent men, women and children who depend on our assistance," the agency said in a statement. "Our sites in Turkey are closed."The agency has worked in Turkey since 2012 serving 360,000 men, women and children in Syria and about 100,000 in Turkey, said Christine Bragale, spokeswoman. About 200 Turkish staff members will be laid off, most other expatriate staff have left the country, she said. Bragale said the agency has not received a reason for the Turkish action. She said a government official told Reuters it's a technical issue related to documentation.

Yeah, right. The Oregonian, of all places, should know Mercy Corps' history but no connections are made.

Is Turkey evicting Mercy Corps for the same reason India is ejecting Compassion International?

Have reporters taken a closer look at Mercy Corps?

Fact is, its web site is scrubbed clean of any religious references now, but it used to be known as a Christian group not that long ago.

Its founder, Dan O’Neill, sprinkles his autobiography with plenty of Christian references, including the fact that he was raised in an Assembly of God family, then married to Cherry Boone, daughter of famed actor/evangelist Pat Boone and his wife Shirley. In 1981, he incorporated Mercy Corps and became a Roman Catholic.

I lived in Portland back then and remember how another convert to Catholicism, singer-songwriter John Michael Talbot, would promote Mercy Corps’ work during his concerts, which is why I always associated the organization with Catholicism. O’Neill is quite clear about his Christian commitment in this 2016 video.

But back in the day, including in this 2004 book, Mercy Corps was known as a Christian humanitarian organization.

However, by 2010, it was making efforts to let media know that it’s not affiliated with any religious group.  Still, its Christian roots are known (certainly by this Pakistani news outlet) and I am surprised that no reporter, from Stars and Stripes to the New York Times connected the dots.

Maybe Fox News is right and the reasons behind this are political. It said:

In the increasing welter of warfare in northern Syria, one of the biggest U.S.-based humanitarian organizations operating in the area has become collateral damage, at least temporarily—and perhaps a sign of worsening relations between the government of Turkey and the Trump Administration.The increasingly authoritarian and thin-skinned government of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was presumably well aware already of that impact, in what has become a fragmented and increasingly tense vortex of conflict.

So Erdogan could care less about the refugees? Appears so.

Indeed, Erdogan’s government may well have been making a different point bysidelining one of the most important U.S.-based institutions in the explosive region—just as the U.S. itself has been increasingly sidelined in the diplomatic conversation now ongoing among Russia, Turkey and the Assad regime about how to end Syria’s brutal civil war. On March 4, Turkey’s foreign ministry issued an angry denunciation of the State Department’s most recently published annual human rights report, issued a day earlier, saying that the parts on Turkey “comprise unacceptable allegations, misrepresentations and interpretations that do not reflect reality,” at a time “when we are faced with unprecedented threats of terrorism posed against the survival of our nation and state.”

Maybe religion has nothing to do with it. But possibly, it does. It might help to ask about that.

For the past 10 years ever since five Muslims killed three Christians in a torture-murder scenario in Malatyia, Turkey hasn’t been known as being hospitable to religions other than Islam. Considering what’s going on with Compassion, reporters would do well to ask if the back story in Turkey is the same. 

Photos from Mercy Corps International's Twitter account.

Categories: Main

With The New Yorker, you can have your cake and gain insight into flowers and same-sex weddings, too

Friday, March 10, 2017

If you've followed the religious liberty headlines of recent years, you're familiar with Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., and Barronelle Stutzman of Arlene’s Flowers, in Richland, Wash.

The New Yorker has a piece out this week that references both:

The Court might not hear the Masterpiece Cakeshop case, but the issue is unlikely to remain unresolved for long. https://t.co/3sNC80UOjd

— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) March 7, 2017

Now, if you're a regular GetReligion reader, you may wonder: Is The New Yorker even news? After all, our journalism-focused website avoids critiquing advocacy reporting and opinion pieces. The answer is that sometimes The New Yorker is news, and other times it isn't.

In this case, it is.

And it's good news. I'm not talking about the subject matter, mind you. I'm referring to the fairness and quality of the journalism.

In a Twitter post, LGBT Map described The New Yorker story as a "helpful overview of the high stakes in this case" (meaning, the Masterpiece Cakeshop case). And the president of Come Reason Ministries characterized it as "a fairly well balanced summary of the legal questions surrounding cake bakers & gay weddings." I agree with both of those tweets.

I'll highlight three things that struck me about this story, which contemplates whether the U.S. Supreme Court might take up the case of either Phillips or Stutzman:

1. The piece makes clear early — and with clarity — that Phillips' problem was not with serving gay customers per se but with participating in a same-sex wedding.

That's an important distinction that news reports frequently miss or ignore.

The story's opening:

In July, 2012, Charlie Craig and David Mullins went to Masterpiece Cakeshop, a small bakery in Lakewood, Colorado, to order a cake for their upcoming wedding reception. The owner, Jack Phillips, told them that he would happily provide baked goods for them for other occasions, but he would not create a cake for this event, citing his general policy, based on his religious convictions, against participating in same-sex marriages. In that very brief conversation—it lasted about twenty seconds, both sides agree—there surfaced a legal conflict between small-business proprietors with strongly held religious beliefs and the rights of gay Americans.On Monday morning, the Supreme Court put off, for a second time, the decision whether to hear Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, but the core of the issue is unlikely to remain unresolved for long. The case is just one of a number of disputes in which small-business owners have refused to provide their usual services—cakes, flowers, photography, or marriage venues—to same-sex couples for their weddings, notwithstanding state or local laws forbidding discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. The venders, usually sole proprietors, have argued that same-sex marriage offends their religious convictions, and that the anti-discrimination laws therefore violate their First Amendment rights, either by compelling them to engage in speech they don’t agree with—forcing them, in their attorneys’ words, to “honor,” “celebrate,” or “participate in” a same-sex marriage—or by interfering with their “free exercise of religion.”

2. The report quotes both sides and delves below the surface to illustrate the complexities of the cases.

Again, much mainstream media coverage fails to do that.

This section of the story, for example, is informative and intelligently written:

The anti-discrimination laws “are not forcing you to say anything,” James Esseks, an attorney for the couple in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case and the director of the A.C.L.U.’s L.G.B.T.-rights project, said in an interview. “You can say to whomever, ‘I think gay people shouldn’t be able to get married. It’s a sin.’ You just can’t turn people away because of who they are.”The particulars of these cases, however, suggest that they are more complicated than that, William Eskridge, Jr., a constitutional-law professor at Yale Law School, said in an interview. Eskridge acknowledged being torn, inasmuch as he describes himself as both “openly gay and openly religious.”“It’s a very hard question,” he said. “Doctrinally, it could go either way.” Eskridge has been active in gay-rights litigation for twenty-five years—he filed a marriage-equality case for a client in Washington, D.C., back in 1990—but he also believes that the legitimate rights of religious minorities have been neglected by judges.“Fundamentalist Protestants, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Muslims, Mormons—it’s a big chunk of America,” he told me. “Decent people. They feel they are under siege by government. Many have no problem with gay customers. They just don’t want to participate in the choreography of gay weddings.”

3. The New Yorker does not put scare quotes around "religious freedom" or "religious liberty."

Again, that's a refreshing — and journalistically responsible — approach.

Even more surprising, The New Yorker doesn't use those terms — with or without scare quotes — at all. Instead, the publication simply describes the issues at stake without mentioning religious liberty or religious freedom.

I'm not sure that approach would work in every case, but it does in this one. 

 

Categories: Main

Why did Reuters (and almost everyone else) miss Pope Francis' all-too-familiar Bible/cellphone quote?

Friday, March 10, 2017

Your correspondent is neither a prophet nor is he the son of a prophet, but I can muster one small claim to fame in the predictive realm. In 2013, I reported in The Washington Times the rather prophetic utterance of Cardinal Donald Wuerl of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Washington that the next Pope would have to master social media.

There can be little doubt that the current Pontifex Maximus, the Argentinian-born Pope Francis, has indeed done so, having an estimated 23 million Twitter followers.

Thus, it's certainly news when the tweeting pontiff says, before a congregation of thousands in St. Peter's Square, that it's time to "Love your Bible as you do your cellphone," as the Christian Science Monitor headlined it. The Monitor report indicates it included data from a Reuters dispatch, which was the first I'd seen of the comments:

Pope Francis on Sunday called on people to carry and read the bible with as much dedication as they do their mobile phones.Speaking to pilgrims in a rain-soaked St. Peter's Square, the 80-year-old pope asked: "What would happen if we treated the bible like we do our mobile phones?"He continued: "If we turned around to retrieve it when we forgot it? If we carried it with us always, even a small pocket version? If we read God's messages in the bible like we read messages on the mobile phone?"Francis called the comparison "paradoxical" and said it was meant to be a source of reflection, adding that bible reading would help people resist daily temptations.

As I said, Papa Francisco has mastered social media. And the bit about checking the Bible as others do unto their Android devices was rather cute.

But it was also rather, well, familiar. I'd heard those phrases before. Long before, it turns out. And yet no one in the media glommed onto this.

The earliest Internet reference I could find was from the year of Our Lord 2010, when a Christian blogger named Rusty Shaw posted this on her blog

Ever wonder what would happen if we treated our Bible like we treat our cell phone? What if we carried it around in our purses or pockets? What if we flipped through it several times a day? What if we turned back to go get it if we forgot it? What if we used it to receive messages from text? What if we treated it like we couldn't live without it? What if we gave it to kids as gifts and insisted they take it with them everywhere? 
What if we used it when we traveled? What if we used it in case of emergency? This is something to make you go...hmmm...Where is my Bible? Oh, and one more thing. Unlike our cell phone, we don't have to worry about our Bible being disconnected because Jesus already paid the bill. 

Ms. Shaw acknowledged those words didn't originate with her, as did Focus on the Family president/CEO Jim Daly when he posted it about a year later. And over at the conservative website "Godfather Politics," a Dan Jolley, who may or may not be the same person who represented a Florida district in Congress for two terms, posted a version in 2014.

It's hard to keep a good story down. Evangelical pulpiteers have long relied on volumes such as Paul Lee Tan's Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations (now doubled to 15,000), or Charles R. Swindoll's Ultimate Book of Illustrations and Quotes. Any preacher who's had the "Saturday night sweats" of not having a message ready for Sunday morning can be forgiven for swiping a good story, or even an entire sermon. (In the introduction to one of his books, Max Lucado — bless him! — issued a dispensation to those pastors who appropriate one of Max's chapters for a last-minute message.)

Am I saying Pope Francis picked this up without credit? Well, let's just say these phrases were not original to him. After reading a Vatican Radio report on the comments, I sent an inquiry via email to the official news outlet, asking who writes the comments the pope gives, and haven't yet had a response.

In viewing a video of Francis' remarks (above), it appears he is reading, in rather flawless Italian, from printed notes. That's not uncommon for preachers, either. But it suggests that those comments may have been written by someone tasked with the job, presumably with input from Francis. Could that literary assistant have picked up the Bible-as-cellphone bit and slipped it in? Did the pope suggest it? (A Time magazine video captions him as noting "Someone said" before uttering the oft-repeated phrases. No one else seems to have caught that.)

It's no sin to use an anecdote you've heard or read somewhere else, although acknowledging it as such is always good, as the pope appears to have done. Regardless, the journalism issue here is that with the exception of the video captioning by Time magazine, no other news outlet reported that these were the words of "someone" that made their way to Francis' message.

I'm going to suggest -- and this isn't an original thought, either -- that the other reporters and editors didn't pick up on this because there's a lack of familiarity with what circulates in evangelical and/or general Christian culture. Having a few evangelicals on staff and on the editing desk would be a step towards avoiding that.

Categories: Main

Associated Press story on Wyoming judge is fair enough, but about that 'anti-gay' headline ...

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Pretty nice story, Associated Press.

But the headline? It's less than perfect.

That's my quick assessment of the wire service's coverage of a decision concerning a Wyoming judge who refuses to perform same-sex marriages.

The news report itself is clear and concise. The 740-word piece simply reports the facts. It avoids loaded (read: biased) language.

A big chunk of the opening:

CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) -- A small-town judge who says her religious beliefs prevent her from presiding over same-sex marriages was publicly censured by the Wyoming Supreme Court on Tuesday.But while the court said her conduct undermines the integrity of the judicial system, it does not warrant removal from the bench. In a 3-2 decision, Justice Kate Fox wrote that Judge Ruth Neely violated judicial conduct code but removing Neely would "unnecessarily circumscribe protected expression.""Judge Neely shall either perform no marriage ceremonies or she shall perform marriage ceremonies regardless of the couple's sexual orientation," Fox wrote.Neely has never been asked to perform a same-sex marriage, and Fox said that the case was not about same-sex marriage or the reasonableness of religious beliefs. ...Neely's case has similarities to legal action against a Kentucky clerk of court jailed briefly in 2015 after refusing marriage licenses to gay and lesbian couples. The case against clerk Kim Davis, a conservative Christian, sparked a national debate over the religious freedom of civil servants versus the civil rights of same-sex couples. Davis ultimately agreed to alter the licenses to remove her name and title. ...(T)he dissenting justices argued that Neely didn't violate any judicial conduct code. "Wyoming law does not require any judge or magistrate to perform any particular marriage, and couples seeking to be married have no right to insist on a particular official as the officiant of their wedding," Justice Keith Kautz wrote in the dissent that was joined by Justice Michael K. Davis.

Keep reading, and AP provides reactions both from Neely's attorney and a gay-rights advocate. Plus, the wire service notes other relevant sources who were contacted but either unavailable or declined to comment. 

I was feeling pretty good about the story, but then I happened to glance at the headline. I somehow missed the headline the first time I clicked the link that someone sent me.

See if you you notice the same thing I did:

Court decides to censure, not remove anti-gay marriage judge

Here's my problem with the headline: It puts a label on the judge and casts her position in a negative light. Is the judge most accurately described as "anti-gay marriage?" Or would she be better characterized as "pro-marriage between one man and one woman as she believes God ordained it?"

Yes, I realize that finite space in the AP's headline field makes that second option difficult. But still, I think the headline could have -- and should have -- been better. Oh, by the way, is "anti-gay," in this case, a reference to expressions of her theological views -- which are at the heart of this debate -- or her actual actions under the laws of her state?

One other note on the AP story: While it refers to Kim Davis, a former Kentucky county clerk who was involved in a similar case, as a conservative Christian, it fails to note Neely's religious affiliation. That would seem to be important information. (For some good background on the Kim Davis case, check out these past GetReligion posts by Terry Mattingly: here and here.)

Back to Neely: She is -- according to a quick Google search -- "a faithful and active member of Our Savior Lutheran Church in Pinedale, Wyoming." That church is affiliated with the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod. Her denomination was, by the way, called "repugnant" by officials in one open court debate about her case.

Finally, the Wyoming case brought to mind a story I wrote for The Christian Chronicle in 2013 on a Washington state judge who was admonished for voicing a preference not to perform same-sex marriages. If you're interested, read that story here.

Categories: Main

Compassion International and India: The New York Times leaves a UN-shaped hole

Thursday, March 9, 2017

If you have followed news in India in recent years, you know that the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party -- commonly known as the BJP -- has continued its efforts to promote "Hindutva," or Hindu-ness, which essentially argues that Hinduism is an essential component of what it means to be a citizen of India.

Thus, it's goal is to defeat secular pluralism and the recognition of a valid role for other faiths in public life. The side effect has, in many cases, been a crackdown on many of the activities of other faiths in India -- especially ministries linked to foreign groups.

Tensions between Muslims and Hindus remain a fact of life. Meanwhile, attacks on Christians -- including a much-publicized gang rape of a 71-year-old nun -- have risen by 20 or 30 percent in recent years.

This brings us to a detailed New York Times report on the latest battle in this conflict, which ran with this headline: "Major Christian Charity Is Closing India Operations Amid a Crackdown."

The key is that officials in India are accusing a major ministry of evangelism, of converting people to Christianity.  What the story never addresses are these questions: As a matter of human rights, do citizens in India have the right to convert to another faith? Do members of one faith have a right to discuss their faith with others? Here is the overture:

NEW DELHI -- India’s crackdown on foreign aid will claim its most prominent casualty this month, as a Colorado-based Christian charity that is one of India’s biggest donors closes its operations here after 48 years, informing tens of thousands of children that they will no longer receive meals, medical care or tuition payments.The shutdown of the charity, Compassion International, on suspicion of engaging in religious conversion, comes as India, a rising economic power with a swelling spirit of nationalism, curtails the flow of foreign money to activities it deems “detrimental to the national interest.”More than 11,000 nongovernmental organizations have lost their licenses to accept foreign funds since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014. Major Western funders -- among them George Soros’s Open Society Foundations and the National Endowment for Democracy -- have been barred from transferring funds without permission from Indian security officials.But few have been as vocal about their struggle as Compassion International, which solicits donations through its $38-a-month “sponsor a child” program and distributes them through church-affiliated service centers. It has repeatedly ranked as India’s largest single foreign donor, transferring around $45 million a year.

It is understandable that the Times had trouble pinning down the precise nature of the accusations against Compassion International. The story notes: "A spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees regulation of foreign charities, declined repeated requests for comment on the case."

At one point, the story stresses that Compassion officials deny accusations that -- as the Times team states, in a paraphrase -- their workers are "funding religious conversions." The implication is that Compassion is being accused of paying money to "rice Christians," people who say they have converted in exchange for money, food or other material benefits (such as school tuition).

If you watch the Compassion International video at the top of this post, you will see that this ministry openly acknowledges its roots in missionary work. When I worked the Godbeat at the Rocky Mountain News, I covered Compassion International -- including reporting in the Dominican Republic in which we followed letters from sponsors all the way to individual children in slums and rural areas. In that land, most of the children were Christians, but some were not. It was clear that aid was being given to anyone who wanted to take part in the ministry's programs.

But elsewhere in the story, the nature of the accusations against Compassion International -- which operates as a charity group -- are stated in different terms. For example:

A spokesman for India’s Ministry of Home Affairs, which oversees regulation of foreign charities, declined repeated requests for comment on the case.A Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, following diplomatic protocol, said that Compassion International’s partners were violating Indian law by engaging in religious activities, and that the organization declined a government offer to re-register as a religious organization, which would have allowed it to continue its work in India.

OK, this raises a logical question: Are these so-called "religious organizations" allowed to fund activities that may or may not lead to conversions? What kinds of "religious activities" are illegal in India and who makes that call?

Note the distinction here: It is one thing to fund a program in which a person must convert to another faith in order to receive benefits. It is something else to fund a program in which all participants are given the same benefits, but individuals have the freedom to convert if they choose to do so.

The Times never nails down -- perhaps because officials refused to answer this question -- the precise nature of the current accusations.

The target keeps shifting. Here is another crucial passage, describing raids on Compassion offices by tax officials:

Sam Jebagnanam, a field officer based in Chennai, described the searches as “harrowing,” with staff members questioned through the night and forbidden to leave the office, summon a lawyer or order food.The investigators, he said, focused their questions on a vacation Bible school funded by the charity. Seventy-six percent of the children served by the program are Hindu, and 28 percent are Christian, he said.At another raid, he said, a top executive was interrogated under oath at 3 a.m.“They kept asking him: ‘Why did you have a spiritual component to the program? What do you do in the area of spiritual development?’” he said. “We said we teach moral values; we do not force anyone into religion.”

The crucial word there is "force." I would assume that in a "vacation Bible school" there was some discussion of Bible stories. Is that now illegal in India?

What is my main point here? The question that is never answered -- I do not know if it was asked by members of the Times team -- is this: Is evangelism, in and of itself, now illegal in India? Can members of Indian churches talk to their neighbors about faith issues? Can foreign missionaries do that? Are "religious organizations" allowed to sponsor activities in which religious issues are discussed?

This brings me to an important United Nations document -- a liberal document, in the true sense of the word -- that has been discussed here at GetReligion many times. I am talking about the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Article 18 in that document states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This Times article, as I said earlier, is long and quite complex. It appears clear, in this article, that BJP officials believe it is bad when voluntary conversions take place during Compassion International activities. The government does not appear to draw a line between paying people to convert to Christianity ("funding conversions") and funding charity programs and religious activities in which people have an opportunity to convert.

My question is not whether Times editors agree with the BJP or with the UN Declaration of Human Rights. My question is whether members of the Times team saw this line between conversions and forced conversions. Did Times editors recognize that this battle between India and Compassion International hinges on a human rights issue, one at the heart of what it means for a nation to defend (or attack) freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

Just asking.

FIRST IMAGE: Screen shot from a Compassion International weblog containing information for sponsors.

Categories: Main

A question that's back in the news: Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

JULIA’S QUESTION:

(In light of news about efforts of U.S. churches and others to shield immigrant aliens from arrest) she asks “whether teachings from the Old Testament on ‘sanctuary’ apply today.”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Many nations, including the United States, struggle over their moral duty in the midst of impossibly huge floods of refugees and other immigrants desiring residency and citizenship, alongside matters of border security. Those challenges obviously relate to the Bible’s many admonitions to love one’s neighbor and offer special help to the poor, the oppressed, and the wayfarer.

So it’s no surprise that churches are active in aiding new U.S. immigrants, whether legal or “undocumented” (a.k.a. “illegal”). A religious conservative, First Things Editor R.R. Reno, says Christians shouldn’t “check immigration papers before helping those in need.” But he nonetheless asserts that citizens still have the “obligation to uphold the law” on immigration controls. Other conservatives cite biblical Proverbs 28:4: “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but those who keep the law struggle against them.”

Yet some religious communities -- and some U.S. cities and entire states -- actively spurn federal law by providing “sanctuary” to shield undocumented aliens from apprehension by law enforcement. They can cite the historical example of the evangelical abolitionists who defied the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

A typical defense of activism was provided in a March 1 Christian Century interview with the Rev. Alexia Salvatierra. She’s a veteran in the religious sanctuary movement of recent decades and now leads a California “welcoming congregations” network for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. As the above question suggests, she states that the understanding of modern-day “sanctuary” stems from the Bible, specifically Numbers chapter 35:9-34 (paralleled in the summary of the law in Deuteronomy 4:41-43; 19:1-10).

Biblical law was cleverly enlightened in a cultural context thousands of years ago when family members were expected to carry out blood vengeance if one of their own was killed.

The late Jacob Milgrom of the University of California, Berkeley, provided the following description in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on Numbers. I will paraphrase some of his thoughts.

The Bible then distinguished cases of premeditated murder from accidental, unintentional killings in Exodus 21:12-15, and the principle was applied and spelled out in Numbers 35. Six “cities of refuge” were designated where those who committed inadvertent killings could flee for protection from vengeful relatives of the victim. These were distributed through the land so they’d be available to those fleeing for protection before avengers could overtake them.

Because each life is precious, even the person who mistakenly killed another human being needed punishment and was consigned to ongoing exile in a city of refuge, “uprooted from his family, home, and livelihood.”

Continue reading "Do Bible teachings apply to today’s 'sanctuary' movement?", by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Can anti-Trump U.S. Jews and Muslims put aside historic differences to work together over time?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Negative circumstances can sometimes produce a surprisingly positive result. That's the case now with American Jews and Muslims as an outgrowth of the wave of anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim acts currently making unwanted headlines.

An increasing number of groups and individuals within the two religious communities -- historically wary of cooperating because of their profound political differences over Israel and the causes of Islamic-inspired terrorism -- have come to each others' assistance in response to the incidents.

If you haven't kept up with this twist, the following stories can bring you up to speed.

This one's from USA Today. Here's a second from NBC News. And here's one from The Los Angeles Times.

It's a step forward when generally estranged communities come to each other's aid. But let's be realistic.

This new-found cooperation does not for a second offset the gravity of the hateful incidents, which have also impacted non-Muslim, non-white immigrants.

Nor does it mean that the cooperation will continue once the current crisis passes, which I certainly hope is soon. I say this because this scenario has played out before.

The 1994 Oslo peace accord signing is one such instance. American Jews and Muslims fervently embraced cooperation then, only to back away from each other when the Israeli-Palestinian conflict heated up yet again. Anger and distrust on both sides forced the swift pull back.

So my advice to journalists covering this story is to be careful not to over inflate the strength of this cooperation. The participants you interview may exude enthusiasm about their efforts, which is to be expected, but restrained story telling will better serve you and your audience.

Remember the adage about the enemy of my enemy being my friend -- at least for the moment. And who might that mutual "enemy" be?

For many Jews and Muslims it's President Donald Trump. They blame him for stirring up the alt-right, who they blame for the heightened anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish incidents.

Casting Trump as the enemy brings up another aspect of this story that should not be overlooked.

By and large, it's the liberal political and religious wings of the two communities -- that is, those who have opposed Trump all along -- that are most enthusiastic about working together now. And the political conservatives and religious traditionalists? Not so much. They tend to support at least some of Trump's agenda or they simply frown upon interfaith cooperation in general.

Let me be clear. I fully support American Jewish and Muslim cooperation. I'm just aware of the baggage the two groups drag into their relationship, making it exceedingly difficult for them to overcome ingrained tribal attitudes, even in an American context.

This late-February essay from The Tablet, a Jewish center-right publication, gets to the heart of the tension with this sub-head: "Do Jews have to make common cause with people who want to kill them?" (This is a commentary piece, of course, so I'm dispensing here with the usual tit-for-tat protocol that requires a similar cautionary tale from the Muslim side -- though I assure you they exist -- solely for space reasons.)

The piece, written by an ardent American Jewish Zionist, focuses on Linda Sarsour, a longtime Arab-American left-wing activist. Sarsour also has a history of stridently anti-Israel rhetoric and activities.

... Sarsour [is] now one of the anti-Trump movement’s most visible leaders. Sarsour, a longtime Arab-American community organizer, was one of the heads of the Women’s March in Washington and is the named plaintiff in the high-profile lawsuit against Trump’s immigration ban. The image of her, hijab-clad and flashing a defiant smile, rivaled the pink knitted hat as the unofficial symbol of the march.She is also a proudly outspoken supporter of BDS [the effort to boycott Israel on all levels]. “Nothing is creepier than Zionism,” she has tweeted, a remark that, along with the fact that in December she posed for a photo with a former Hamas operative, stirred a series of critical pieces on right-wing websites in the days following the march on the capital. Within hours, Sarsour’s newfound friends and supporters -- do I even need mention that Mark Ruffalo and Susan Sarandon were among them? -- burst forth with a social-media-driven campaign dubbed #IMarchWithLinda, in which the stories about her background and views were presented as vicious hatchet jobs by pro-Trump legions determined to slow the momentum of the anti-Trump brigades. Indeed, how could a woman who last week made headlines for organizing a fundraising drive that raised more than $56,000 to repair the desecrated Jewish cemetery in St. Louis harbor hostility to Jews?Among those who have pledged allegiance to Sarsour are prominent Jewish leaders and rabbis. Criticism of the Muslim activist was nothing but “a deliberate smear campaign from the far right to delegitimize the march itself,” said Los Angeles Rabbi Sharon Brous, expressing the view of many other anti-Trump Jews. “This is a time for serious coalition-building, for standing beside other minority populations that are targeted. It is time for people to stand for and with each other. There will be in the mix a number of different perspectives. I don’t feel at all uncomfortable about that,” Brous has said. “A much greater problem would be if the Jewish community stepped out of activism because we’re afraid that someone on the stage has a position on BDS different than our own.”

There's a lot more relevant material in this piece. I recommend that you read it all.

I attended the Washington march, knowing that Sarsour was a prime organizer. But as a Zionist, I'm conflicted about her prominence in the anti-Trump faction (with which I largely identify).  So I'll pay close attention to her speech going forward.

President Trump has sure made for some unlikely political bedfellows. But who knows? Perhaps some surprising, positive twist will emerge from all the current uncertainty.

Scribes, you might want to follow this awkward tale of political and religious rapprochement as it unfolds in your own backyards. Look for regional lists of leaders in interfaith dialogues, especially those between Jews and Muslims, and proceed from there.

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Categories: Main

New York Times offers faith-free take on rugby fans hijacking 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot'

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Let me start by confessing that I know very little about rugby or the fan culture that surrounds it in some parts of the world. In other words, I am an American.

However, I do know a thing or two about church music. Basically, I have been singing in church choirs (and academic choirs dedicated to classical and sacred music) so long that I don't even remember when I started. My childhood memories have always included choirs.

Thus, allow me to make a few comments on half of the material found in a fascinating New York Times feature that ran with this headline: "How a Slave Spiritual Became English Rugby’s Anthem." The story is labeled "rugby," which implies that it was a sports feature. However, it was also featured in the "international" news section of the Times online round-up.

Obviously, I want to comment on the feature's religious content and lack thereof. Here is the overture:

LONDON -- Barely a minute had elapsed in the match between the national rugby teams of England and France when the song first boomed around the stands at Twickenham Stadium.“Swing low, sweet chariot,” thousands of fans sang, “coming for to carry me home.”It is a famous refrain and melody. For many in the United States, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” enjoys a hallowed status as one of the cherished of 19th-century African-American spirituals, its forlorn lyrics invoking the darkness of slavery and the sustained oppression of a race.But here, across the Atlantic, the song has developed a parallel existence, unchanged in form but utterly different in function, as a boisterous drinking song turned sports anthem.

The feature includes quite a bit of material about rugby culture. It also does a fantastic job of describing the symbolic role that this spiritual -- it could also be called a folk hymn -- has played in African-American history.

So what is missing? Suffice it to say that, when writing about the meaning of a song, I think that it helps to know what the lyrics of the song actually say. In this case, quoting the language used in this spiritual -- by which I mean quoting more than the opening line or two -- would clarify a crucial fact in the story. For journalists, clarity is a virtue.

You see, it appears that English rugby fans are not singing "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." They are singing the melody of this famous spiritual, while repeating the opening refrain over and over. In some cases, fans have added sports-related (or even bawdy) lyrics, and hand gestures, into the mix.

Does this matter? Only if, (a) readers need to know what is actually happening in those stadiums (and pubs) and if (b) readers need to understand why some African-American musicians and Christians are offended by what is going on.

Yes, many people are offended by what is clearly a strange case of cultural appropriation. This is when an important symbol or tradition is yanked out of one culture and slammed into another, often with offensive results.

The Times team is all over that angle. Let me stress that it's important to discuss the racial and cultural issues linked to this strange use of snippets of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot." Here is a crucial passage on that:

Over the years, English newspaper articles mentioning the chant’s genesis ... matter-of-factly tied its emergence to the race of Chris Oti, who was the first black player to represent England’s rugby team in almost a century, and who played a starring role in that game.Dudley Wood, the former secretary of the Rugby Football Union, was quoted in The Independent in 1991 as saying that Oti “was totally mobbed on the way to the dressing room. It’s a delicate situation in a way, in that it’s a Negro spiritual. But we poor English don’t really have the songs to sing.”Two years later, the same newspaper devoted an edition of its mail-in reader question-and-answer column to the question of why the chant took hold. In response, one reader wrote, “It was often sung by a white crowd when black players were playing well -- a backhanded compliment in my view.” Another called it “slightly racist but in the best possible taste.”

Disturbing, to say the least. But what about the actual Christian content of the hymn? As often happens when journalists write about music in the black church, it appears that everything is cultural and that's that. The faith component is ditched and the church is turned into a cultural museum.

So what are the lyrics of this spiritual? Click here for a full set (although there are variations elsewhere). Here are some important excerpts:

Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home
A band of angels coming after me
Coming for to carry me home

Many readers would be familiar with this much of the song. It appears that, in rugby stadiums, fans are repeating the first two lines and that's that. Perhaps readers can enlighten me on this point.

But there's more to the hymn than this, such as:

I'm sometimes up and sometimes down
Coming for to carry me home
But still my soul feels heavenly bound
Coming for to carry me home ...
The brightest day that I can say
Coming for to carry me home
When Jesus washed my sins away
Coming for to carry me home

You get the idea. This spiritual had obvious implications for the slaves and former slaves who sang it, yearning for freedom and release from their pain and suffering. It has always been interpreted as an expression of yearning for a new home -- in this life and the next. That yearning had political and cultural content, as well as spiritual.

A 2015 BBC feature gets into some of that history, while -- again -- stripping away references to Christian faith in the song.

There are several theories about its meaning, including that it conveyed a coded message to slaves, instructing them to escape. However Horace Clarence Boyer, a prominent scholar in African-American music, believed the song is about death.Professor Boyer, who died in 2009, told a BBC documentary: "This fits into that group of spirituals that say 'I would rather die than be here. Lord, just come and take me right now.'"Instead they sing this, 'Swing low sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home.' Where's home? That's heaven. Or at least not here. That's so interesting because everybody sings that, they say 'Oh that's such a pretty melody' not knowing that was a song about death."It's a sad song. It's almost like a language of double entendres. It has one meaning for you and another meaning for somebody else."

Let me return to my original question: Did the Times need to quote the lyrics? As I said, it would help for readers to know what rugby fans are singing and what they are not singing. The story basically assumes that this song is a cultural artifact, with zero content.

It is also crucial, when referring to bawdy pub versions "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," to know that fans are twisting the images of a sacred song into something radically different. And then there is the dancing in the stands, football anthem version.

This is a really interesting and at times poignant story. Please read it all.

The Times team clearly took this story seriously -- or parts of this story.

But why strip this famous black spiritual of its actual Christian content? In a way, the Times team put this hymn through an editing process that was not unlike the one being used in rugby stadiums. Why do that?

Categories: Main

Visiting 'The Shack' -- Media pros should bone up on some theology before doing so

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

By this time, “The Shack,” a movie based on the best-selling novel of the same name, has been out a week. It has received lackluster reviews so far, even though it has Octavia Spencer playing God. Can’t get much better than that.

We don’t cover reviews here at GetReligion, since our focus is on news. However, I do wish to suggest that if mainstream media reviewers are going to critique a religious film, they should at least bone up on basic Christian doctrines or find a copy editor who has.

For those who need some background on the film, they could read an actual news report on issues raised in the film. Here's what Religion News Service led with:

(RNS) The 15 copies William Paul Young made at Office Depot did everything he had hoped they would do.And more.Young fulfilled a promise he’d made to his wife to write something down for their six children that captured the way he viewed God, and the 15 copies were given to his family and friends as Christmas gifts. ...After it was rejected or ignored by 26 publishing companies, (author) Wayne Jacobsen and his friend Brian Cummings set up a small company to publish the story themselves. And Windblown Media sold nearly 1.1 million copies out of Cummings’ garage in just over a year.Now Young’s best-selling book “The Shack” is completing its decade-long journey from the page to the screen in a Hollywood film opening this weekend (March 3), starring Octavia Spencer and Sam Worthington.

By the way, it's Brad Cummings, not Brian. The article then summarizes the plot and some of the opposition to the film, which presents a multi-ethnic Trinity in the form of a black woman, an Israeli man and a Japanese woman. The report also gets some good quotes from Spencer and Worthington. Then:

But the popularity of “The Shack” is just the tip of the iceberg, Young said.There’s “no doubt” evangelicalism is changing, returning to an understanding of God in line with the early church fathers and mothers -- an understanding he tried to capture in his book, he said.“As the structures start to crumble, which they are, all of a sudden permission to ask the questions is emerging,” he said. “I think that’s a movement of the Holy Spirit. … I think we’re on the cusp or inside the beginnings of a reformation.”

Is that Reformation, with a large "R"?

But I doubt that Young's writings are pointing us toward a "great emergence" in the manner described by the late Godtalk expert Phyllis Tickle. In fact, say the folks at Relevant, a Christian magazine aimed at millennials, Young has made Christianity less palatable to many.

At this point, nearly all of the Christian population has a strong opinion about the ideas presented in The Shack. Odds are, you’re either in the camp with country superstar Tim McGraw, who appears in the film and claims the story left him “flooded with tears.” Or, you’re with Albert Mohler, who claims the novel presents a “theology that is unconventional at best, and undoubtedly heretical in certain respects.”I fall somewhere outside the two camps. Because here’s the most obvious thing about The Shack that most critics and readers alike ignored in the frenzy to analyze theology: This is just a bad story for a movie. Mohler pointed this out in his review, writing “at most points the narrative seems mainly to serve as a structure for the dialogues,” a criticism that’s echoed on the mainstream side of the media as well. The AV Club claims “the whole film is a crime against narrative, so bungled that it might actually be the victim of sabotage.”The Shack sits at just 14 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.

 No kidding.

Among the dozen reviews I skimmed, I noticed Variety pointing out that “The Shack” makes Christianity too cosy, whereas in reality the faith is “daunting.” And:

The site of the atrocity is a shack in the woods that looks like a cross between the “Amityville” house and some sordid cabin out of “Friday the 13th.” For a while, “The Shack” looks like it’s going to be a queasy piece of Christian disaster porn. It is, sort of, but it’s really a Hallmark-card therapy session, a kind of woodland weekend-retreat self-actualization seminar hosted by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. Who come off, in this case, like the featured celebrity guests on a very special episode of “Oprah.”

Other reviews missed the mark by quite a bit. A writer for the Washington Post said, in part:

The novel “The Shack” was a surprising literary phenomenon. After author William Paul Young self-published the book in 2007, it went on to sell more than 20 million copies, to a predominantly Christian audience. (“The Shack” overtly deals with evangelical ideas of God.) 

Nope. The doctrinal concepts offered in the movie are definitely not part of evangelical Christianity. They’re more universalist and truly interfaith in scope, but would this critic know what a universalist is? 

The reviewer for CinemaBlend also thought the movie was aimed at evangelicals. Again, no. Try the disenfranchised and de-churched believer or the skeptic.

A few reviewers did grasp the theology –- or lack thereof –- behind this movie as did this writer for RogerEbert.com. This clever but disparaging review trashes the movie for not going deep enough.

Since its publication, “The Shack” has engendered a good deal of controversy within the Christian community for interpreting both the Bible and the Holy Trinity in ways that some consider to be heretical. Based on a viewing of the movie, I would label those charges to be nonsense; to be truly heretical would require a more cogent level of thinking than the awkward plotting and empty-headed New Agey koans offered up here. 

The Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer nailed it on the head with the film’s basic problem.

One need not be atheistic or otherwise areligious to find this stuff moronic. Such large-scale, box office dominating Christian blockbusters (see also: the God’s Not Dead movies) are so sappy and sermonizing that they constitute their own subgenre of cinematic camp.Moreover, the vision they offer of religious belief is downright demoralizing (not to mention untraditional, even borderline heretical, in its interpretation of the scriptures). Instead of faith being just that, i.e. a deep-rooted belief in higher powers and the redemptive potential of love and forgiveness that is made stronger by virtue of it being unprovable, it’s degraded and stripped of any spiritual potency.

There are lots of other reviews ranging from Entertainment Weekly to the AV Club, which likens the movie to a walk through a Thomas Kinkade print.

 It’s not often that you get any theology with your movie reviews, so I appreciate it when I can.

No matter how the movie does, Young is not done with us yet. His newest book is out this month, magically in tandem with the movie. Despite the theological problems many have with the book and movie versions of “The Shack,” millions of people have read the former.

For journalists, the story here is not so much the film as the message that is being heard by the target audience. Why do so many people love what Young has to say? That’s what the next round of news stories should be about.

Categories: Main

Supreme Court punts on first major transgender case, but religion angle merits ongoing coverage

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Editor's note: A quick follow-up by Richard Ostling to his earlier post on this same topic, since the U.S. Supreme Court made a surprise move in this legal chess game.

*****

The U.S. Supreme Court decided March 6 to punt on its first encounter with the growing transgender rights movement, sending the Gloucester County School Board case back to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for review. The high court had scheduled this Virginia case for oral arguments March 28, but the incoming Donald Trump administration has for the time being rescinded the Obama Administration policy the 4th Circuit relied upon.

The evolving situation merits close Godbeat attention due to the major challenge for advocates of religious liberty, already on the defensive over other issues. With gay marriage legalized throughout the United States by the Supreme Court, the LGBT movement is focusing all its moxie on transgender rights.

The basics for reporters: The Obama administration’s Departments of Education and Justice notified all U.S. public schools last May that to qualify for continued federal funding they need to follow each student’s sense of personal “gender identity,” as opposed to birth biology, regarding access to “sex-segregated restrooms, locker rooms, shower facilities, housing and athletic teams (.pdf document here)."

That redefined “sex” under Title IX of the anti-discrimination law in question. For 44 years before that, the government thought “sex” meant biological gender, not an identity that may conflict with it. The new contention that gender is “assigned” at birth but flexible, rather than fixed by biology, gains cultural clout from important segments of the Democratic Party, big business, the academic world, the entertainment industry, professional and college athletics, and the like.

In the Virginia case, an anatomically female high schooler who is transitioning wanted to use boys’ toilets instead of unisex facilities the school provides. Local school districts are caught between transgender rights appeals and community concerns about privacy and security, including access to locker rooms and showers that were not raised in the Virginia dispute.

A major chunk of U.S. organized religion has reacted in unison against the Obama policy and 4th Circuit ruling. A “friend of the court” legal brief in the Virginia case (.pdf document here) allied the nation’s two largest denominations, the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Convention, with the National Association of Evangelicals, Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America and Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons). The filing also cited support from authoritative teachings of monotheistic Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Sikhism (Buddhism and Hinduism were not mentioned).

The brief said varied religions have “remarkable unanimity on the origin and purpose of gender as immutable and divinely ordained.” It stated that both religious teaching and “practical experience” show that “gender is a given, consisting of attributes intrinsically connected with one’s birth sex -- not an individual choice," though noting certain medically anomalous cases.

The group is concerned that change in federal policy would “provoke serious religious conflicts,” especially for schools and colleges and potentially for many other organizations.

The opposite religious stance was taken in a March 2 brief from officials and entities of Conservative Judaism, the Episcopal Church, United Church of Christ, Unitarian Universalist Association, other organizations and 1,800 individuals. It stated that this grouping includes varying beliefs about gender identity but there's a "broad and growing embrace" of transgender people within "mainstream religion" and that "fundamental human dignity" requires treatment of students that follows "religiously neutral principles of equal protection under the law."

Another major brief, from the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Virginia school's policy "humiliates and stigmatizes" transgender students, with "devastating impact."

In other Supreme Court filings, a group of religious colleges objected that the Obama administration ignored the statutory rule-making process of “notice and comment” needed for such policy changes. For that and other reasons, the Trump team contends that the legal issues involved need further consideration, a point some leading law professors make in filings.

The Trump administration also thinks that states and local schools should take “the primary role” in setting educational policy. That’s similar to contentions in the brief filed by the associations that represent the nation’s 10,000 school superintendents and 90,000 local school boards. A related issue is whether federal judges and agencies have the power to settle social issues, rather than the U.S. Congress and state legislatures.

Meanwhile, psychiatrists and other professionals are debating whether surgery or hormone treatments are appropriate for youths with “gender dysphoria,” in some cases involving children in elementary school.

Journalists should bookmark this: All the texts regarding Gloucester County are posted by the ever-handy scotusblog.

Categories: Main

Of 'MormonLeaks,' intellectual property and The Salt Lake Tribune -- recipe for bias?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

There are, as many people know, two daily newspapers in Salt Lake City, Utah, the state's largest city, its capital city and, yes, world headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, often colloquially referred to as the Mormon Church.

One newspaper is the Deseret News, where I served as a national reporter in 2014 and 2015. The LDS Church owns the company that publishes the paper. Many church members in Utah appreciate the Deseret News' coverage and family-friendly orientation. (And as noted when I rejoined the GetReligion team, I do not report on the paper's faith coverage due to my previous association there.)

The other newspaper is The Salt Lake Tribune, now owned by a son of billionaire Jon Huntsman Sr. after years of tumult following the paper's migration from local ownership to being part of a hedge-fund controlled national chain. This newspaper has often run pieces critical of, if not hostile to, the LDS Church, mostly in the opinion pages, but occasionally elsewhere. The Trib's longtime religion reporter, Peggy Fletcher Stack, is an award-winning Godbeat journalist who is very well sourced in the LDS community, as well as among other faith groups in the Beehive State.

But it was another Trib reporter, Christopher Smart, who recently took on a dispute between the Mormon leadership and an independent website called "MormonLeaks," which disseminates its information via Twitter and, until recently, Facebook. The group, headed by Ryan McKnight, a former member of the LDS Church, seeks to make public internal Mormon documents in order to bring "transparency" to the membership. (There's another group with the "Mormon Leaks" name, who assert their data relates to LDS history, not current church operations. These people disavow any association with McKnight and company.)

On March 1, attorneys for Intellectual Reserve Inc., a non-profit LDS Church corporation that owns the copyrights to LDS Church publications and documents, sent a "takedown notice" to McKnight's MormonLeaks group, and one of its hosting sites declaring a leaked document asserted to be copyrighted LDS Church property. The document was reported to be an internal slide presentation for church leadership summarizing why some people quit their membership. 

Sharing these slides online, the letter stated, infringed on that copyright. The hosting firm took the document down, and now the Trib jumped in.

Under a headline of "LDS Church goes after MormonLeaks, accuses website of ‘copyright’ violation," we read:

Wednesday's letter from the LDS Church is the first threatening MormonLeaks with litigation, McKnight said Thursday, despite earlier posts that could be seen as more incendiary.The PowerPoint surrounding "issues and ideas leading people away from the gospel," was taken down from docdroid.net, McKnight said. That was not his doing. He said he would have left it up.The leaked presentation lists such things as "Ordain Women," "incredulity over church history," "pornography" and "lack of righteousness" as concerns that test Mormons' devotion.The Utah-based faith had no comment regarding the material or the letter from Barry V. Taggart, manager of the church's intellectual property office.

One GetReligion reader wrote in to say the "scare quotes" around "copyright" in the headline put the Trib on McKnight's side.

I don't know if I would go that far, but there are enough intellectual property attorneys in Salt Lake City and south to Provo not in the employ of the LDS Church that one could offer an opinion on the validity of the copyright claim. Indeed, the University of Utah, a public university, numbers several professors on its law faculty who could address the copyright issue.

But the Trib account eschews the legal angle to focus instead on MormonLeaks' notoriety:

McKnight gained headlines in October [2016], during the church's fall General Conference, when he facilitated the posting of 15 videos showing LDS apostles privately discussing topics ranging from gay rights to politics to piracy. He said he simply wanted to offer "a peek behind the curtain" of the faith's burgeoning bureaucracy.Mormon officials did not dispute the veracity of the videos, and McKnight soon was inundated by insiders wanting to anonymously make private LDS information public.

What the Trib apparently forgot is that the matter of copyright enforcement by the LDS Church, including information posted on or even linked to from a website, is hardly a new question.

Church leaders established Intellectual Reserve Inc. to protect the LDS faith's intellectual property back in 1997. Not long after, IRI sued an evangelical Christian group in Salt Lake City, Utah Lighthouse Ministry, for putting a weblink to previously unknown information on how to remove one's name from LDS Church membership rolls. In the 20 years since that case, it appears the subject is more easily found: information on name-removal is now summarized by UTLM in an apparently non-controversial article elsewhere on its website.

A federal judge's decision supporting the LDS Church's contention that Utah Lighthouse Ministry couldn't even link to another website's information because that site may have infringed LDS Church copyrights caused a stir in the early days of the World Wide Web. In 1999, a newspaper called The Salt Lake Tribune reported on that case, although a search for a current online link to the Trib story has been unavailing.

The journalistic issue is balance -- the latest Trib story is heavily weighted towards McKnight's perspective and downplays the church's viewpoint -- as well as memory.

The bottom line: Having LDS Church officials attempt to enforce its copyrights is nothing new, and not at all deserving of scare quotes.

Categories: Main

Scare quotes and factual journalism in Florida: This here is what they call a 'religious liberties' bill

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Lawmakers push for more ‘religious liberties’ in Florida public schools https://t.co/uTFXPkvKRA pic.twitter.com/2ar3UR1DKH

— Miami Herald (@MiamiHerald) March 7, 2017

Yes, there are scare quotes in the Miami Herald's coverage of a fast-tracked religious liberties bill in the Florida Senate.

As regular GetReligion readers know, that is so often the case when the mainstream press reports on such legislation — but not always.

However, we come today not to dwell on the Sunshine State newspaper's sin (we're in a forgiving mood) but to praise the overall quality of the Herald's reporting.

The lede sets the scene:

TALLAHASSEE — Students and teachers in Florida’s public schools would more explicitly have the right to say the Lord’s Prayer, pray to Allah or worship Satan under a highly polarizing measure that’s being fast-tracked through the Florida Senate as the 2017 session begins this week.Called a “religious liberties” bill, SB 436 is intended to “clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who’s driving the measure in the Senate.“I grew up in an America where you were free to express your faith, and there was no intimidation of whether you could say ‘Jesus’ out loud or not,” Baxley said. “This is where we’ve come: The pendulum has swung so far that there’s been a chilling effect on people of faith of just expressing and being who they are.”While comments before the Senate Education Committee on Monday heavily emphasized a need to protect Christians, Baxley’s bill would shield students, teachers and school staff of all faiths from religious discrimination — protections already guaranteed through the Florida and U.S. Constitutions, as well as U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

The phrase "called a 'religious liberties' bill" gives the impression that the concept is new to the Herald, when, in fact, that issue was a factor in Donald Trump's surprise election as president. 

My proposed — and simple — edit:

The religious liberties bill — SB 436 — is intended to “clarify First Amendment rights of free speech, specifically as they apply to religious expression,” said Sen. Dennis Baxley, a conservative Republican from Ocala who’s driving the measure in the Senate.

A brief aside: I'm open to debate on whether — in a news story — "conservative" belongs in that description of the senator. Democrats referenced later in the piece aren't labeled as "liberals."

But back to the main point, here's what I appreciate about the Herald's story: It quotes supporters and critics — in their own words — and gives both an opportunity to explain their reasoning:

Representatives of conservative Christian organizations argue the extra protection is needed because, they say, schools arbitrarily restrict religious expression. For example, Anthony Verdugo, founder of the Miami-based Christian Family Coalition, told senators he’d heard from a Hillsborough County parent last week who reported his child’s teacher asked the student to “remove a chain with a cross because it’s a gang symbol.”“Let’s separate fact from fiction,” Verdugo said. “SB 436 is an equality bill; it prohibits discrimination.”But critics of Baxley’s proposal — including the Anti-Defamation League and Equality Florida — argue the measure is “too broad” and could actually allow for discrimination, not stop it. They worry students or teachers could force their religious beliefs on others and that the bill could potentially lead to bullying of those who don’t share their beliefs, are non-religious or are members of a minority religion, such as Islam or Judaism.“Equality Florida firmly supports freedom of religion, but we also know that religion is sometimes used as a license to discriminate,” said Hannah Willard, public policy director for the LGBT-rights group. “[The bill] is written in such a broad way ... that it could allow for unsafe situations for those who are religious minorities or LGBTQ or are in any way outside traditional conservative Christianity.”When asked about potential discrimination against religious minorities, Baxley told the Herald/Times: “I don’t think we’re the ones that are intolerant at this stage.” He clarified that by “we” he meant the “Christian family.”“Maybe that was true at some point in history, but right now, that’s not where the intolerance is coming from,” Baxley said.

That's Journalism 101 stuff, for sure. 

Of course, if you read GetReligion with any frequency, you know how difficult that nuts-and-bolts approach can be for many 21st century news organizations.

One more thing: The "worship Satan" note in the opening sentence seemed like a stretch when I first read it. At the end of the story, however, the Herald quotes a source who makes clear its relevancy.

Scare quotes aside, give the Miami paper credit for a mostly fair and balanced report.

Image via Pixabay.com

Categories: Main

Immigration EO, round 2: Maybe Christians merely 'claim' to be persecuted by Islamic State?

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Does anyone out there in news-consumer land remember the 21 Coptic Christian martyrs of Libya who were slaughtered on a beach in that Islamic State video? As Pope Francis noted, many of them died with these words on their lips: "Jesus help me."

Remember the reports of Christians -- along with Yazidis and other religious minorities -- being raped, gunned down, hauled off into sexual servitude or in some cases crucified?

Surely you do. These hellish events did receive some coverage from major American newsrooms.

The persecution of religious minorities -- Christians, Yazidis, Alawites, Baha'is, Jews, Druze and Shia Muslims -- played a role, of course, in the #MuslimBan media blitz that followed the rushed release of President Donald Trump's first executive order creating a temporary ban on most refugees from lands racked by conflicts with radicalized forms of Islam.

So now journalists are dissecting the administration's second executive order on this topic, which tried to clean up some of the wreckage from that first train wreck. How did elite journalists deal with the religious persecution angle this time around?

Trigger warning: Readers who care about issues of religious persecution should sit down and take several deep breaths before reading this USA Today passage on changes in the second EO:

Nationals of the six countries with legal permanent residence in the U.S. (known as green card holders) are not affected. People with valid visas as of Monday also are exempt. And the order no longer gives immigration preference to "religious minorities," such as Christians who claim they are persecuted in mostly Muslim countries.

The key word there, of course, is "claim."

You see, we don't actually have any evidence -- in videos, photos or reports from religious organizations and human-rights groups -- that Christians and believers in other religious minorities are actually being persecuted. Christians simply "claim" that this is the case.

Thank you, editors at USA Today for your candor on that topic. However, I could have sworn that, during the Barack Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry used the strongest possible language when addressing this persecution issue. He told reporters:

... that "Daesh" -- the Arabic term for the Islamic State -- is "responsible for genocide against groups in areas under its control, including Yazidis, Christians and Shi'ite Muslims. … Daesh is genocidal by self-proclamation, by ideology and by actions, in what it says, in what it believes and what it does."

Yes, that USA Today story was a rather extreme case of loaded language from early coverage of the revised executive order.

For the most part, the religious persecution angle was pushed deep into the news reports. In several cases, journalists avoided any references to what the earlier EO text said on this issue, allowing the voices of Trump and his critics to stand unchallenged. Hold that thought.

It is worth noting that The New York Times thought this angle was important enough to put it in the lede:

WASHINGTON -- President Trump on Monday signed a revised version of his executive order that would for the first time rewrite American immigration policy to bar migrants from predominantly Muslim nations, removing citizens of Iraq from the original travel embargo and scrapping a provision that explicitly protected religious minorities.

Later on, the Times team added this:

... Opponents said that the removal of a section that had granted preferential treatment to victims of religious persecution -- a provision that immigrant rights attorneys argued was intended to discriminate against Muslims -- was a cosmetic change that did nothing to alter the order’s prejudicial purpose.“This is a retreat, but let’s be clear -- it’s just another run at a Muslim ban,” said Omar Jadwat, director of the Immigrants’ Rights Project at the American Civil Liberties Union, one of the groups that sued to stop the first order.

That's interesting. I could have sworn that the original language also protected some Muslims, and members of sects linked to Islam, who have faced persecution from the Islamic State. What did that order actually say?

... The "Secretary of State, in consultation with the Secretary of Homeland Security, is further directed to make changes, to the extent permitted by law, to prioritize refugee claims made by individuals on the basis of religious-based persecution, provided that the religion of the individual is a minority religion in the individual's country of nationality."

You may recall that the Times, during that earlier media storm, summarized that part of the order by saying it "gives preferential treatment to Christians who try to enter the United States from majority-Muslim nations." In a way, the Gray Lady was more restrained this time around, leaving persecuted Christians out of this debate.

How did the Associated Press handle this angle in the new EO? This is crucial, since this is the story that will appear in most ordinary daily newspapers across America. Here is the crucial reference:

The new version also removes language that would give priority to religious minorities. Critics had accused the administration of adding such language to help Christians get into the U.S. while excluding Muslims.

Yes, it is certainly true that critics interpreted the original executive order in that manner, helped along by the usual opinions and slanted information found in Trump tweets and his statements to Christian media. But what did the actual EO text say?

My journalism question: Is it normal for journalists to allow "critics" of a policy to be the only voices addressing the basic facts in this kind of debate? Again, what did the actual EO say? Were there people -- including EO opponents -- who noted that believers in other persecuted religious minorities would have been affected?

Apparently, this "critics" only approach to the core facts also appealed to editors at The Washington Post:

The new order ... removes an exception to the refu­gee ban for members of religious minority groups -- which critics had pointed to as evidence the first ban was meant to discriminate against Muslims -- and it no longer imposes an indefinite prohibition on travelers from Syria.

I will end with this appeal by one activist -- yes, a Christian -- on these issues. This topic might be worth some follow-up reporting, to see if anyone in the White House still cares about this issue.

Nina Shea at the Hudson Institute's Center for Religious Freedom noted:

There’s a dire need for Pres. Trump to issue a separate executive order -- one specifically aimed to help ISIS genocide survivors in Iraq and Syria. For three years, the Christians, Yizidis and others of the smallest religious minorities have been targeted by ISIS with beheadings, crucifixions, rape, torture and sexual enslavement. One year ago, on March 17, 2016, ISIS was officially designated as responsible for this “genocide” by the State Department. Nevertheless, the UN marginalizes these minorities, not only from Syrian refugee resettlement referrals,  but from other UN programs substantially funded by the U.S.: Iraqi humanitarian aid programs, Nineveh reconstruction assistance plans and its refugee camps, which, region-wide, have been allowed to become dens of religious persecution in which few minority refugees dare enter.  Even if ISIS is routed from Mosul, the Christian community is now so shattered and vulnerable, without Pres. Trump’s prompt leadership, the entire Iraqi Christian presence could soon be wiped out.

Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Toughest church-states battles: When faith-healing doctrines lead to children dying

Monday, March 6, 2017

Anyone who has studied the separation of church and state knows that there are all kinds of issues in this field that cry out for compromise -- but compromises acceptable to both sides are often next to impossible to find.

No, I am not talking about LGBTQ issues that pit religious liberty against emerging concepts of sexual liberty.

I'm talking about cases in which the religious convictions of parents -- specifically the belief that all medical issues should be handled through prayer and "natural" remedies -- lead to the death of children. Basically, courts are being asked to draw a line limiting parental rights, when it comes to a contest between faith and modern medicine.

As a rule, state officials are supposed to avoid becoming entangled in matters of faith and doctrine. However, there are limits. Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly noted that state officials have the right to intervene when cases involve fraud, profit and clear threat to life and health. "Faith healing" cases pivot on whether a religious group's teachings represent a "clear threat" to believers, especially children.

A reader recently pointed me to a massive PennLive.com (Gannett newspapers in Central Pennsylvania) report that ran under the headline: "God's will vs. medicine: Does Faith Tabernacle beliefs put children at risk?"

I want to stress that there is much to recommend in this piece, including the fact that it places debates about Pennsylvania law affecting "faith healing" in the context of ongoing national debates about Christian Science, the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses, the traditions of the Amish and others. There are places where I would question the wording used by the PennLive.com team, but I still want to salute the research done here.

This piece is way better than the norm on this difficult topic. Here is a long, but crucial passage:

A fundamental church, Faith Tabernacle rejects any form of medical care. The church believes disease is a moral issue, the result of being out of relationship with God. The remedy must be a spiritual one. These beliefs have once again come under scrutiny after the death of toddler whose parents -- members of Faith Tabernacle -- abided by their religious convictions and relied on prayer rather than medicine.Ella Grace Foster was two when she died in November from pneumonia. Authorities say she likely would have survived had she received medical care.Authorities earlier this month charged Jonathan and Grace Foster of Berks County with involuntary manslaughter and child endangerment. The Fosters, who are members of Mechanicsburg-based Faith Tabernacle congregation, attributed the toddler's death to "God's will.""Any illness or injuries that occur within their lives are considered acts of God, and they leave all of their faith in God to keep them safe, healthy and debt free," Jonathan Foster told authorities, according to court records.

OK, I have a question: What is a "fundamental" church and how is that different than a "fundamentalist" church?

I ask because it is rare to find links between "faith healing" cases and the actual doctrines of fundamentalist Protestantism. It is much more common for Pentecostal Christians to link their beliefs in prayer and healing to the denial of modern medical science. Do editors at PennLive.com realize that fundamentalist Christians and Pentecostal Christians are to very different flocks? Did they interview experts on the doctrinal issues there?

The real church-state debate begins here, a few lines later:

Pennsylvania is one of 32 states that offer a religious exemption to state child abuse protection laws. The statute extends a religious defense, in civil court, to parents who rely on spiritual treatment in accordance with their faith's beliefs.That exemption does not protect them from criminal prosecution. Religious exemptions don't apply in cases in which a child dies."We've failed our children here," said Dr. Paul Offit, professor of pediatrics at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia and long-time advocate dedicated to overturning Pennsylvania's religious exemption. "I think this in many ways is America's dirty little secret."

Now, here is the point I want to stress. This piece makes it sound like this is a story involving (a) people who support the rights of "faith healing" flocks and (b) those who oppose laws that protect "faith healing" believers.

There are two sides -- nice and neat. The reality is more complex than that, as is often the case in religious-liberty disputes.

This story has plenty of material from faith-healing critics and that point of view is essential. Readers are also told, in very blunt terms, what this particular faith-healing group believes. It's clear that reporters attempted to interview Faith Tabernacle leaders about their beliefs, but were met with silence.

So what is missing here?

Where are the voices of church-state experts who have tried -- FOR DECADES -- to protect the rights of believers on these matters, right up to the line of clear threat to life and health? Where are the people who have worked with religious groups (many of these cases are linked to Jehovah's Witnesses) to protect parental rights to every degree that is possible, while also protecting children? Where are the voices of the legal teams for religious groups that believe in faith healing, but are willing to compromise under specific circumstances involving the health of children (as opposed to adult believers who are free to make their own choices)? Where are the voices of religious believers who truly believe that God can and does heal, but who also embrace the work of modern doctors?

In other words, where are the church-state experts and religious thinkers who are in the middle? I am talking about the people -- conservatives, liberals, etc. -- who want to protect parental rights and the doctrinal rights of religious groups in every way possible, but who also recognize the agonizing compromises needed with children are involved in these matter.

The bottom line: This story offers agonizing details about the current cases in Pennsylvania and cases in the past. It also points to older, and wider, debates on these topics. But where are the church-state expects who have sought compromises? This is a case in which trying to talk to the Faith Tabernacle leaders is not the only way to seek voices on the other wide, or in the middle, of this debate.

Categories: Main

In Dallas Morning News crime narrative, forgiveness feels more philosophical than theological

Monday, March 6, 2017

Warning: This is a critique in process. The final verdict remains uncertain.

That's because I'm going to highlight an ongoing Dallas Morning News narrative series that launched Sunday with Part One and continued today with Part Two. The next installment is scheduled for Tuesday. I don't know exactly how many total chapters are planned.

But this much is already clear: There seems to be a strong religion angle to this in-depth project. The story focuses on a father whose teenage daughter and her boyfriend plotted 25 years ago to kill his wife — and did — and tried but failed to take his life.

Already, forgiveness has emerged as a major theme of the father's journey. But that angle remains largely unexplored.

"Betrayal" was the banner headline Sunday as the project opened with this dramatic scene:

Gunshots startled Buz Caldwell from sleep. They filled the room with hot light and blew him from bed. He came to on the floor, his feet toward the headboard. Blood soaked the carpet.Buz shouted to his wife, Rosalyn, who had been asleep next to him in her pink nightgown.“Roz? Roz?”Silence.He tugged open the nightstand drawer and reached for his pistol. It was gone.So was the intruder. Buz never saw the shooter.He checked his digital alarm clock: 11:47 p.m. He struggled to his knees, then crumpled. Somehow, he inched toward the phone across the room.Every breath hurt. When he tried to raise his head, he blacked out again.A light flicked on in the hallway just as he reached for the phone.“Krissi, is that you?” he called out. The shadow of his 16-year-old daughter filled the doorway.“I need your help,” he said. “I’ve been shot.”Krissi called 911. Her words were so matter of fact, so calm, that the Frisco police dispatcher at first believed the call was a hoax.The plotWhat the dispatcher heard in Krissi Caldwell’s voice was not deceit but disappointment. The teenager entered the bedroom expecting — hoping — to find both of her parents dead.

Read a bit more, and the writer presents the thesis of the series:

Krissi had committed the worst kind of betrayal. Once, she had been Buz’s baby girl, but now, he grew determined to seek vengeance. He testified against Krissi and demanded the harshest possible sentence. He got what he wanted, but for years after, his heart remained cold.Then something happened to Buz Caldwell.Think of the worst thing a loved one ever did to you. Think of the shock and pain you felt when you saw this person’s other face. How long did you carry that rage, that scar on your heart? Do you carry it still? What would it take you to forgive?Here’s what it took for Buz Caldwell. If there’s hope for him, there’s hope for the rest of us.

That hope ... that forgiveness ... what role, if any, did religion play?

In Part Two, the newspaper addresses that question, but in a way that feels — at least to me — more philosophical than theological:

Prophets and poets have written about mercy and forgiveness for centuries.The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama and the prophet Muhammad have spoken of the need to forgive and be forgiven. No less a sage than Willie Nelson sings that forgiveness is “the only way that I’ll find peace of mind.”In religion, forgiveness is often associated with purification: Sin is a stain on the sinner, and forgiveness is the cleanser. Buddha overcame anger before he found enlightenment. Jews ask God for forgiveness on Yom Kippur, but only after requesting the same from those they’ve wronged.When God says “vengeance is mine,” he is not just issuing threats; he’s taking on the burden of anger to lighten our load. The rage is too much for us to carry.The lesson in all of this: Forgiveness is something you do for yourself. Those who forgive are no longer defined by how they were betrayed.We have all borne witness to astounding acts of forgiveness by seemingly average people. The families who forgave the man who slaughtered their loved ones inside Charleston AME Emanuel Church. The wrongly imprisoned North Carolina man who hugged the woman who misidentified him as her rapist and said, “I’ve never been mad at you.”Then there is Buz Caldwell, who no longer goes to church but still holds to the Southern Baptist faith he grew up with.“I believe God sent his only son to die on the cross for our sins,” Buz said. “If he could send his son to the cross to die, how was it that I could not forgive these kids? I either had to practice what I believed in or had to stop believing — and I wasn’t going to stop believing.”

OK, that's a start, but I'm a little unsure how one holds true to his Southern Baptist faith without going to church. Please tell me more.

As the series resumes, I'd love to see the Dallas Morning News delve deeper into Caldwell's religious beliefs and spiritual journey. Those aspects of his life and character seem crucial.

This is the focus promised for Part Three:

Buz finds that forgiving his daughter and forgiving her boyfriend, Bobby, is a package deal.

Stay tuned.

Image via Pixabay.com

Categories: Main

The Ivanka/Jared factor: Who's reporting on their clout and the faith connection?

Monday, March 6, 2017

I was going through my daily collection of emails from the various media on Friday when I noticed something on the Washington Post’s “Daily 202” email blast about the documents President Trump doesn’t want people to see him sign.

Then there was this. Does anyone else sense a religion ghost here, as your GetReligionistas would put it? Read on:

Trump’s daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared, both top advisers, also tend to be extremely uneasy with the kinds of socially-divisive executive actions that will offend their 30-something liberal socialite friends in Manhattan, whose cocktail parties they want to continue getting invited to. They killed a draft executive order that would have dramatically expanded the rights of people, businesses and organizations of faith to opt out of laws or activities that violate their religion, such as same-sex wedding ceremonies.

We’ve been writing about the often unbalanced news coverage of the Baronelle Stutzmans and the Elaine Huguenins and the Melissa Kleins of this world –- all of them people who’ve declined to assist at weddings of gay clients because of their religious beliefs. A major reason why a lot of folks voted for President Donald Trump was to put an end to such lawsuits. Are all these folks’ hopes going to be washed down the river thanks to Ivanka and Jared?

Why is this duo all that powerful? They've recently been criticized for not stopping Trump's reversal of Obama's transgender bathroom bill.

Let’s back up a bit. There was a lot going on in early February (Justice Neil Gorsuch, the Superbowl, the National Prayer Breakfast) when all this broke. The Nation magazine described the draft executive order here

A New York Times piece then explained how the order got killed:

WASHINGTON -- The two most influential social liberals in President Trump’s inner circle — daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner -- helped kill a proposed executive order that would have scrapped Obama-era L.G.B.T. protections, according to people familiar with the issue…The executive order has exposed what is likely to be a persistent schism in Mr. Trump’s paradoxical presidency: He is a cosmopolitan New Yorker who has long operated in an environment where sexual orientation is often an afterthought, but is nonetheless beholden to the social conservatives who backed him overwhelmingly in 2016, despite reports of his crudeness and sexual misdeeds.Mr. Kushner, a lifelong Democrat, and Ms. Trump, an independent, travel in liberal social circles and have long supported L.G.B.T. rights. Neither had seen the order before details were leaked. They expressed their dissatisfaction to Mr. Trump’s other advisers, and then weighed in directly with the president, who opposes same-sex marriage but has spoken out against discrimination.

Instead, the White House put out a statement about Trump being “respectful and supportive of LGBTQ rights.” And Trump talked about repealing the Johnson Amendment, which we wrote about here. The Times continues:

The draft order, circulated by religious conservatives allied with Mr. Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, was one of about 250 edicts that have been sent to federal agencies for vetting.Mr. Trump never seriously considered signing the order, and did not need much convincing, people close to him said.Still, conservatives inside the Trump camp pressured the president to consider a version of a “religious freedom” measure, similar to one supported by Mr. Pence in 2015 while he was the governor of Indiana, according to two senior administration officials. Mr. Pence, however, did not personally push for the White House order, according to one of his allies.

A piece by Politico gave additional details as well. 

Yes, there was some muted blowback.

Some conservative leaders warned Mr. Trump that his decision to retain former President Barack Obama’s order on L.G.B.T. rights could have far-reaching political implications. “Our base would want to know who is responsible for what we believe is an issue of religious liberty -- that would be of concern to us,” said Bob Vander Plaats, the chief executive of The Family Leader, a socially conservative organization.“We have been consistent,” Mr. Vander Plaats added. “We’ve cheered President Trump a lot. But on this one, our base is wondering why Obama’s executive order would be allowed to stand?”Tony Perkins, the president of the conservative Family Research Council, backed the draft order and said he believed Mr. Trump’s opposition was only temporary. He pointed out that evangelicals were supportive of Mr. Trump during the campaign, and that there would need to be reconciliation between his support for religious liberty and his decision to uphold the L.G.B.T. order.“He gets it,” Mr. Perkins said of the president. “They will have to fix it and they will. I’m confident they will. Am I concerned? No. Not at this point.”

On the other side of the spectrum, one opinion writer for the Los Angeles Times doesn’t think for a moment that Trump is waffling on same-sex marriage and that he’ll come up with something just as damaging down the line.

No way. Religious freedom advocates who thought they got VE-Day with Trump’s election have yet to realize they are actually at D-Day and the battle may not go their way.

Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher succinctly outlined this threat here and asked why conservatives aren’t raising hell about it. 

Meanwhile, I’m asking how this religion story got lost in the cracks.

What happened was a case of smoke and mirrors and although many of the political reporters got wind of it, the story was never about a betrayal of the Religious Right. I'm wondering if we're seeing the beginning of that here. At this point, it certainly appears that Trump's heart is not really in the social conservative camp and what’s important to religious folks on religious freedom is not important to him. 

Because if it's the religious freedom folks against Ivanka and Jared, we all know who the Donald will side with, don't we? Journalists may also want to explore how all of this tension over social and moral issues does or does not fit in with this power duo's modern Orthodox Jewish faith.

A lot of Catholics, evangelicals and other social/religious conservatives are barely hanging in there with Trump. If the 45th president deserts them on this issue, there's going to be some mighty interesting religion news in the days to come.

Categories: Main

Stephen Curry goes to Liberty: Social justice plus God plus sneakers equals news?

Sunday, March 5, 2017

First let me confess that this post is inspired, in part, by the fact that it is written while sitting at a desk that allows me to glance to the side and look at the Golden Gate Bridge.

In other words, I am currently attending a journalism conference in Stephen Curry territory.

This location tends to inspire thoughts on Curry, hoops, sneakers and God -- not necessarily in that order, There are, of course, topics that have been discussed many times here at GetReligion (click here for flashbacks) because, well, many (not all) mainstream journalists have struggle to "get" the whole God angle in the remarkable career of this unlikely NBA megastar.

Anyway, I noticed the following report in the daily online offerings of Baptist Press, a denominational news organization that is usually not my go-to source for NBA news. This is not a remarkable story, by any means. In fact, it's rather ordinary -- which is my point. The question that I think some news consumers would ask, once again, is this: "Is this story news? Why or why not?"

LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP) -- It didn't take long for Stephen Curry to start talking about Jesus when he stepped to the stage at Liberty University on Wednesday (March 1)."It's great to feel the passion for Christ that is here," Curry said.The NBA superstar visited Liberty in support of a sneaker donation initiative called Kick'n It for a Cause during a convocation at the Lynchburg, Va., campus. Kick'n It for a Cause is a combination of two initiatives founded by Liberty students. 'Kick'n It' is a lifestyle brand that seeks to join the passions of sneakers and pop culture with the goal of community service. The brand was started by Liberty alumnus Chris Strachan.Kick'in It combined forces with another Liberty student, Emmanuel Ntibonera, to encourage students to donate up to 20,000 sneakers by March 1 to be sent to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ntibonera's native land, to provide footwear to those in need. The footwear will serve as protection from preventable infections caused by improper footwear.

Now, there are several different newsy things going on in this story.

For Baptist Press, the lede is clearly the religion element. You have one of the world's best known athletes giving his Christian testimony in what, for some, would be a controversial setting. This isn't a surprise, since Curry is very open about his faith and, well, reporters should have figured out the Bible verses written on his sneakers thing by now.

It also helps to know that Curry's younger brother Seth -- currently lighting things up for the Dallas Mavericks -- played hoops at Liberty.

So Steph Curry said the kinds of things one would expect an openly Christian guy to say in a chapel setting, asking students to "use their talents and abilities" to serve God and help others.

"Taking your platform and using it to shine a light for Christ is what it's all about," he said.Curry described his public platform as an opportunity to point people to Christ and not to himself."God has given me a special platform, but it's not about me," Curry said. "Whether it is winning games, losing games, making shots, missing shots it is all about giving glory to God."

This story received some media play in the mountains of Virginia, which is no surprise. In addition to some faith content, this Roanoke Times story had some crucial details, on the business and missions side of this project:

Curry was on campus to speak but also to promote the efforts of Emmanuel Ntibonera, an LU student from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who is collecting shoes to send to his homeland.To support Ntibonera’s cause, Liberty distributed bins around the Vines Center to collect donated shoes.The goal is to collect 20,000 pairs of shoes that LU will deliver to the Democratic Republic of the Congo this summer. According to LU spokesman Len Stevens, LU has collected nearly “20,000-plus and counting” shoes to donate.Under Armour, a Steph Curry sponsor, donated 1,000 pairs of children’s shoes to the effort.

So, indirectly, one of the giants of the world of sports fashion is also involved in this project, simply because of Curry.

You may recall that controversial ESPN story about giant Nike losing Curry to its upstart rival, in part (as I read things) because Under Armour didn't seem to mind the NBA superstar making faith and values a part of "his brand" with the sneakers. Note the biblical reference in my GetReligion headline about that multi-million-dollar dust-up: "ESPN's epic on Nike losing Steph Curry: Yes, that 4:13 Bible reference is part of the story." The ESPN team, as often is the case, all but ignored the faith element of this major news story.

So, for the mainstream press -- including here in the Bay area -- it's clear that the Curry goes to Liberty story was not worth coverage. The question, again, is "Why?"

I agree that the faith element alone is not news here in San Francisco. My question is whether the social-justice meets sneakers element of Kick'in It -- with Under Armour's involvement -- was worthy of a story in the media of the region in which Steph Curry plays (as opposed to the media near Liberty).

Why or why not, No. 1? We already know, so far, that the answer is "No."

One more comment: Would it have been Bay area or even national sports news if anti-Liberty University activists of some kind -- perhaps anti-Donald Trump forces or LGBTQ groups -- had protested Curry's involvement in this project and his chapel appearance?

Why or why not, No. 2? I would assume that the answer here is "Yes."

Thoughts on this set of journalism decisions?

 

 

Categories: Main

Portrait of a lady: Concerning missing art treasures and a contested cathedral

Sunday, March 5, 2017

“Cognitive dissonance” is a mellifluous phrase I’ve heard bandied about in the media during these first days of the Donald Trump administration.

The new president’s supporters are in the grips of this psychological malady, the Daily Kos tells us. In an interview broadcast by MSNBC “Bill Nye” the “science guy” postulated the president also suffered from “cognitive dissonance,” and as he had a “worldview that disagrees with what you observe.”

Writing in 1962 in Scientific American about this new psychological theory, (cognitive dissonance, not Donald Trump), Leon Festinger offered this explanation:

This theory centers around the idea that if a person knows various things that are not psychologically consistent with one another, he will, in a variety of ways, try to make them more consistent. Two items of information that psychologically do not fit together are said to be in a dissonant relation to each other. The items of information may be about behavior, feelings, opinions, things in the environment and so on. The word "cognitive" simply emphasizes that the theory deals with relations among items of information.

Such ideas are not new. Scripture tells us: A double minded man is unstable in all his ways (James 1:8). Once upon a time, a double minded man was one with a character flaw. Now he has a pathological condition.

If the president and his supporters are not sick, they must be evil, the pundits tell us -- witness the contretemps over “alternative facts” and Kellyanne Conway.  Moral opprobrium like burning coals has been heaped onto the head of the presidential counselor in disputes over alternative narratives of reality.

Stepping back into the GetReligion harness has resulted in a bout or two of cognitive dissonance for me -- the neural pathways used in my work as a country priest are not those of a journalism critic.

Nor did I keep all my bookmarks on the web. Looking for interesting items has led me to some odd corners, and the odd corners have unearthed odd stories.

I learned just the other day of a gallery opening in Minsk. The Belarusian Telegraphic Agency reports:

The National Art Museum of Belarus has received a new addition to its collection of Radziwill family portraits and belongings, BelTA has learned. Maciej Radziwill donated a Radziwill family tree to the museum as he unveiled the exhibition “The Radziwills: The Fate of the Country and the Family” at the National Art Museum of Belarus on 26 February. The exhibition showcases 99 items from Maciej Radziwill's personal collection and portraits from the holdings of the National Art Museum of Belarus which were kept in Nesvizh Castle until 1939.

Good for Prince Radziwill! He is showing a commendable civic pride. But I wonder what happened in 1939 that led to a change of curators for his family’s collection?

The article is silent on that point. Was there a burglary? A fire sale of assets? Maybe that fellow Stalin joined forces with Adolph Hitler and invaded Poland, carting off the contents of the Radziwill family home to populate the Minsk people’s palace of culture.

Prince Radziwill appears not to have pressed his claim for the return of his family’s treasures however -- and this may be a wise decision as their ancestral home now lies within the territory of Belarus -- one of the nastier places east of the Elbe.

Other art treasures confiscated during that era have been returned to their rightful owners, though. PBS Newshour summarized this trend in a piece entitled “Why finding Nazi-looted art is ‘a question of justice’.”

During World War II, Hitler’s army systematically looted great art collections of Europe from national museums and private families. This government-sponsored theft is considered the biggest robbery in history.

After the war, the U.S. and its allies tasked a special unit of 350 army personnel from 14 nations to find and return looted art to its rightful owners. These so-called “Monuments Men,” who were popularized in a 2014 Hollywood movie, recovered millions of items and returned treasures like a 15th-century Ghent altarpiece to Belgium and “Lady with an Ermine,” a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, to Poland.

But the Monuments Men returned art to countries, not individuals, which sometimes put the heirs of Holocaust victims at odds with their home governments.

PBS frames this story in terms of natural justice, of private citizens and organizations seeking justice from the state and the powerful. From a press perspective I have no quarrel with them over not offering the Nazi point of view -- which was that the art confiscated from Jews was acquired through illicit means. In the Nazi worldview this was not art stolen from Jews, but art restored to the Aryan people after it had been purchased with funds generated by Jewish capitalists. Balance is not always necessary when writing about Nazis.

Yet, not all victims of the terrors of the 20th century have received justice, nor received the sympathy of the mainstream media.

Continue reading "Portrait of a lady" by George Conger.

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