Syndicate content
Get Religion is a national and global journalism site focusing on how the
mainstream press covers religion news in politics, entertainment, business
and sports.
Updated: 28 min 3 sec ago

Time to work up those walkups to the Supreme Court’s big transgender moment

Saturday, March 4, 2017

On March 28, the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in the Gloucester County School Board case, its first encounter with the growing transgender rights movement.

Journalists, it's time to work up those walkups.

The basics: 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 change 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. In the current case, an anatomically female Virginia high schooler who is transitioning wants 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.

The case’s significance is not ended by the February 22 decision of the incoming Donald Trump administration to rescind the Barack Obama directive for now. Access to locker rooms and showers are also part of this hot-button debate.

With gay marriage legalized throughout the United States by the Supreme Court, the LGBTQ movement is focusing all its moxie on transgender rights. The belief 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.

That poses a major challenge for advocates of religious liberty, already on the defensive with other issues.

A major chunk of U.S. organized religion has now reacted in unison against the Obama policy. A “friend of the court” legal brief in the case (.pdf document here) allies 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 cites support from authoritative teachings of monotheistic Orthodox Christianity, Islam and Sikhism (Buddhism and Hinduism are not mentioned).

The brief says varied religions have “remarkable unanimity on the origin and purpose of gender as immutable and divinely ordained.” It states 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.

As of this writing, no denomination has filed a brief providing religious backing for the transgender rights side. There the most important brief was filed February 23 by the American Civil Liberties Union. It says “targeting” such as the Virginia school performed “humiliates and stigmatizes” transgender  students, causing a “devastating impact on their physical and mental well-being and their ability to thrive in school.”

In other court filings, a group of religious colleges objects 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. 

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

Categories: Main

Glitter and ashes, bikinis and other adventures in news about 'American Lent'

Friday, March 3, 2017

So let's say that you are a religion-beat reporter and your editor assigns you to do a news feature about Lent, beginning with the Ash Wednesday rites found in Western Christian traditions.

What are the questions that you need to ask at that point?

That's where this week's "Crossroads" podcast starts, spinning out of my recent post with this headline: "Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there." Click here to tune that in.

A savvy religion-beat reporter would -- first thing -- try to find out what the editor means when she or he says the word "Lent."

Are we talking about Roman Catholic Lent? Pre- or post-Vatican II? Fasting or no fasting?

Are we talking about Anglican Lent? Lutheran Lent? Yes, there is such a thing in some congregations, on the doctrinal left and right. How about Eastern Orthodox Lent, in which many believers -- on the fasting side of things -- basically go vegan for the whole season? (By the way, who can name the rite that opens Lent among the Orthodox?)

Here is the key: Is the editor talking about what I call "American Lent," which basically allows a person to create their own version of the season. That's the whole "give up one thing for Lent" thing. The problem is that the ancient rites and traditions of Lent are not -- to say the least -- an exercise in American individualism. Just the opposite.

You see, there is a good chance that the editor may actually want a story that is FUNNY, not solemn. The editor may want "10 hip things for Millennials to give up for Lent in 2017" (I suggest kale or skinny jeans). Somehow, Lent has turned into a novelty story. Here's the tone at The New York Daily News:

If you notice people walking around with smudges on their forehead today, don't be alarmed: It's Ash Wednesday. (It's definitely not schmutz, so please don't try to rub it off of anyone.)A somber day on the Christian liturgical calendar, it marks the start of Lent. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians go to church and part of the service is to get blessed with, you guessed it, ashes. In this case, blessing means the priest applies ashes to your forehead. As with lots of Christian ritual, it's primarily a Roman Catholic thing, and many wear the mark throughout the day.

Wait! That's just one of the tabloid's Lenten offerings. Then there is the story about using Lent to "get bikini-season ready."

No, really.

For many Catholics, the 40-day period of Lent is something to be dreaded. For me, it’s an excuse to get bikini-season ready.Sure, it’s a solemn religious observance. But it’s also the perfect path to more superficial goals. And if I can stay in God’s good graces and drop a few pounds in the process — what’s there to lose?And lucky for us, Lent -- when Catholics around the world give up a luxury or privilege as penance for sins -- kicks off on March 1, right after the glutinous season that stretches from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day. 

Notice that, the "one thing for Lent" concept is built into this little feature -- even though that is not the current state of Lenten practice for Catholics, other than school children (at least that is how Catholic educators have explained it to me).

So what is going on here? Help me out, wise guys at The Babylon Bee.

Report: Closeness To God Linked To Constantly Telling Friends What You Gave Up For Lent

— The Babylon Bee (@TheBabylonBee) March 1, 2017

Yes, there is that temptation. That's a valid comment on Lent in all its forms.

But how about using Lent to make some kind of personal or even political statement?

Progressive Reverend Draws Question Marks With Ashes On Parishioners’ Foreheads

— The Babylon Bee (@TheBabylonBee) March 1, 2017

But clearly the edgy Ash Wednesday and Lent angle for this year was the LGBTQ Glitter Ash project. For major media, it appears that the coverage began with USA Today picking up a Religion News Service report with this memorable opening:

Lighten up, Ash Wednesday.A New York-based advocacy group called Parity is asking Christians who favor LGBT equality -- “queer positive Christians,” in their parlance -- to show support by wearing “glitter ash” on their foreheads to mark Ash Wednesday on March 1.Ash Wednesday kicks off the six-week somber season called Lent that leads to Easter, and is usually marked in churches with the color purple. Traditionally, plain gray ashes, blessed by a minister or priest, are smeared on the foreheads of Christians to symbolize repentance.“This is a way for queer Christians and queer-positive persons of faith to say ‘We are here,'” said Marian Edmonds-Allen, Parity’s executive director. “It is also a way for other people to be a witness to that and be in solidarity with them.”

This was pretty much THE liberal mainline Protestant Lent story of Ash Wednesday 2017, if you check out a typical Google News search. The question, for me, was the degree to which it was a reality in mainstream Episcopal, Presbyterian Church (USA), United Methodist and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregations, among others in that world. Parity was formerly known as Presbyterian Welcome and that network worked with Queer Virtue and the Metropolitan Community Church on this project.

Here's a story to watch in the future. Will any Catholic parishes (or campus ministries) take part in Glitter Ash Wednesday.

As one would expect, the RNS coverage, and editorial commentaries, appear to have driven most of the coverage, in mainstream, conservative and liberal publications online. I would expect more coverage next year, especially from television networks.

Here is the big question: Did reporters think that everyone would see Glitter Ash Wednesday as a good thing? Please note that I am not just talking about quoting outraged doctrinal conservatives (although that is an essential part of a balanced, accurate story).

There are liberal believers who thought that this project was guilty of taking a major Christian liturgical symbol into dangerous territory. I mean, even in a long, long, long Episcopal New Service Glitter Ash apologetic there was this nod in that direction:

... That blending of symbols may become spiritually “problematic” and “confusing,” said the Rev. Ruth Meyers, dean of academic affaris and professor of liturgics at Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California. She would advise clergy against incorporating glitter into their Ash Wednesday rituals.“It’s an ancient symbol of repentance, of regret … our mortality,” Meyers said. “To try to combine that symbol with glitter, which seems to be about a celebration and an affirmation of a particular group of people, seems to confuse the symbols in a way that doesn’t allow either symbol to work.”The Book of Common Prayer only specifies that ashes should be imposed, without elaborating on the method or mixture, Meyers said. Traditionally the ashes come from the burnt palm fronds from the previous Easter, but even that aspect of Ash Wednesday is merely a custom for Episcopalians.“People have to make their own well-informed decisions how to do that,” Meyers said. “There isn’t a rule that says, ‘Thou shall use only this for the ashes.’”Even so, she suggested that people interested in showing solidarity with LGBT causes can take that on as a Lenten discipline without changing the traditional symbolism of the ashes.

Did anyone see mainstream media Glitter Ash coverage -- news, not commentary -- that was especially good or bad? What about Lenten coverage in general?

Please let us know, via email or in the comments boxes. And enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

Sold on sanctuary: Most journalists giving decent coverage to grassroots movement

Friday, March 3, 2017

The drama surrounding President Donald Trump’s immigration policies hasn’t died down as thousands –- or millions -- of illegal immigrants figure out what to do next.

Like a phoenix out of ashes, the once obscure sanctuary movement has sprung back to life in churches and networks of religious activists.

Several publications have been visiting churches that have decided to host illegal immigrants in their basements, much like some were doing in the 1980s to asylum seekers from the killing fields of Guatemala or El Salvador. I first reported on the uptick in coverage in November.

The movement briefly stirred back to life in 2007 near the end of the George W. Bush years and I wrote about it in a four-part series for the Washington Times. A lot of the energy in the current movement seems centered on the West Coast. What I wrote about the movement in Seattle sounds eerily the same now that the Seattle Times is covering it 10 years later. As I read their recent piece, some of the same folks I interviewed a decade ago are still involved:

With President Donald Trump’s new policies prioritizing millions for deportation, people who entered the country illegally are feeling an urgent need to get their affairs in order. And their advocates want to help.El Centro de la Raza (in Seattle’s Beacon Hill district), catering primarily to Latinos with services such as preschool and a food bank, is holding daily walk-in sessions like this one through March 4 to help people draw up emergency plans.Houses of worship are also preparing to step in, readying their buildings as safe havens. In Los Angeles, religious leaders are going so far as to form an underground network of private homes to try to hide families. ...The Church Council of Greater Seattle has been reaching out to its 320 member congregations, as well as to local synagogues and mosques, to explore ways to support immigrants and refugees. That could include providing “long-term hospitality,” said Executive Director Michael Ramos.While those conversations are just beginning, he said, “The energy is high.”

One of the religious groups involved in the Seattle effort is the Episcopal Church, including St. Mark’s Cathedral, pictured with this article.

Saint Mark’s itself, a Capitol Hill landmark attracting some 800 people on a Sunday, is considering making some of its space available as a temporary home, complete with kitchen, laundry and showers, (Dean Steven) Thomason said.He didn’t want to say exactly where that home would be, for fear of attracting immigration officials’ attention, despite the church’s status as a sensitive location.“I have a concern about a variety of ways that this could get even darker and more wrongheaded,” he said. “That does not cause us to waver one bit in our resolve.”In Auburn, Saint Matthew-San Mateo Episcopal Church, a founding member of the new sanctuary movement in 2007, also is gearing up to help.

Yep, San Mateo was one of the churches I visited in 2007.

CNN weighed in with a piece on an underground railroad of sorts where people are preparing to host immigrant families in their homes.

The story begins with a female pastor named Ada Valiente, although the story never says what church she affiliates with.

The goal is to offer another sanctuary beyond religious buildings or schools, ones that require federal authorities to obtain warrants before entering the homes."That's what we need to do as a community to keep families together," Valiente says.At another Los Angeles neighborhood miles away, a Jewish man shows off a sparsely decorated spare bedroom in his home. White sheets on the bed and the clean, adjacent full bathroom bear all the markers of an impending visit. The man, who asked not to be identified, pictures an undocumented woman and her children who may find refuge in his home someday.

I’m glad they got the range of beliefs, but it seems odd that a movement would move out of churches into private homes that do not have the connotation of sanctuary that a church does. The network tries to explain the difference.

Under federal law, locations like churches and synagogues are technically public spaces that authorities could enter to conduct law enforcement actions. In 2011, the Department of Homeland Security instituted a policy limiting ICE action at religious locations. The policy ordered ICE to not enter "sensitive locations" like schools and institutions of worship.Religious leaders in Los Angeles that spoke to CNN are skeptical whether that policy will stand under a Trump presidency."There's a difference between someone knocking on your door at the church who's a federal agent and someone knocking on the door of your home, where, if they don't have a warrant, they shouldn't be entering," Hoover says.In the hours after Trump's initial executive order on immigration, calls between religious organizers picked up, and the network rapidly grew. Hoover estimates the underground network could hide 100 undocumented people today. Soon, he believes, they could hide thousands.

The article then morphes into a discussion of “God’s law versus Trump’s law,” returning to Valiente and the Jewish interviewee as to why they think what they’re doing is God’s work. Waaaaay down near the end of the piece, an opposing view is given two paragraphs:

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the conservative Center for Immigration Studies, says the law is clear about what these groups are intending to do."They're committing a felony. Harboring is a felony," Krikorian says. "Regular folks hiding people in a basement face jail time because it is ultimately a smuggling conspiracy."

I think he’s onto something. A church isn’t going to suffer the consequences of sheltering illegal immigrants the same way an individual would. The article’s premise is pretty shaky and I think the legal protections that Valiente is counting on are false.

Time magazine found out that one of the pastors who gave a prayer at Trump’s inauguration is hosting illegals. What’s gratifying about this piece is how the writer explains how the sanctuary issue is being handled differently by evangelicals than by mainstream Protestants.

The Sacramento church of an evangelical pastor who led a prayer at Donald Trump’s inauguration is offering beds for congregants who need a safe haven from immigration raids or domestic violence.Pastors at New Season Christian Worship Center set up thirty cots in two large rooms just days after the President issued his January executive order that expanded federal deportation policy. Congregants spread the word that they were available for anyone who was afraid of the immigration policies’ potential effect. Half a dozen families showed up in the past month. Most stayed just a couple of days. About half came with fears over immigration and half with fears of domestic abuse, according to church officials.New Season Christian Worship Center is led by Sam Rodriguez Jr., the president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference (NHCLC), who prayed at President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in January.New Season’s safe haven program is different from the sanctuary church movement, which seeks to protect immigrants facing deportation from federal officials. Some 800 mostly liberal Christian and interfaith congregations have signed up to be sanctuary churches and most come from non-evangelical denominations including Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church USA, and Disciples of Christ churches.

Take especial note of this paragraph:

Theologically conservative churches face different challenges from their liberal counterparts. Many evangelical churches have members who are strong Trump supporters as well as immigrants who are both legal and undocumented. NHCLC is a largely conservative network of evangelical Hispanic churches, and Latino evangelical congregations have been growing quickly in the U.S. Nearly a quarter of Assemblies of God churches, for example, are Latino, and much of the new growth has come from Hispanic communities. “This is a community that is not completely hostile to him,” Rodriguez says. “It was the conservative evangelical community that played a dominant role in the election of our president.”

I think the Time piece had by far the freshest angle, but I’m glad that other publications are running with this story and giving religious groups lots of credit. Even Mother Jones, not known as a bastion of religion coverage, has gotten into the act

I hope that journalists give both sides of this story and resist making their articles simple PR for the sanctuary movement with minimal quotes from the other side.

Find out from churches about the strain that staying within these buildings’ four walls has on an immigrant. What’s it costing these congregations to have people in their basements? And how many synagogues, mosques, Mormon-owned facilities, Baha’i, Hindu and Buddhist temples are involved? Go beyond the usual suspects. Because if the movement stays within the parameter of liberal Protestant churches, that’s one thing. But if it morphs into a bigger movement involving more religious persuasions, that’s completely another. 

Categories: Main

Dirty words? Conservatives, liberals and accurate descriptions when reporting on religious freedom

Friday, March 3, 2017

Everybody loves a sequel, right?

I hope so because this is my third post of the week on the same topic.

But I really believe the information I'm going to share is relevant. Even better, it's at the heart of GetReligion's mission to promote quality news coverage of religion.

Before I get to that, though, please hang with me for just a moment. I need to help everybody who might have missed the first two posts catch up.

1. I began the week with a, shall we say, negative critique of NPR's coverage of the religion freedom issue:

No, this @NPR story isn't #fakenews. But it's certainly flawed. #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) February 27, 2017

2. But overnight, NPR suddenly "got religion" in a big way, which is to say that Godbeat pro Tom Gjelten tackled the same subject matter in a much better fashion:

#Journalism in the #fakenews era: Why it doesn't hurt to pay attention to certain bylines.

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) February 28, 2017

My follow-up post gushed all over Gjelten's piece on the religious freedom debate:

Wow!This latest piece is absolutely fantastic: 1. No scare quotes. 2. No biased language such as "so-called." 3. No favoritism — it clearly explains both sides and fairly represents each side's arguments and concerns.

So why do a third post? Because of the excellent discussion generated by a reader's question about Gjelten's story.

The question came from Anton Karidian:

I agree that today's story on NPR is superior than yesterday's, with many reporting techniques in its favor. However, I have one quibble: Gjelten consistently identifies religious freedom advocates as "conservatives" but not once identifies an LGBT advocate as a "liberal" or "progressive".

I replied:

Thanks for that insightful comment, Anton.Charles Haynes, one of the religious freedom advocates quoted, certainly wouldn't be characterized as a conservative, I don't think.

And GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly chimed in:

Of course, support for religious liberty and First Amendment rights in general used to be one of the defining characteristics of liberalism. The press needs to remember that there are old-fashioned liberals -- including many who support same-sex marriage -- who remain strong defends of religious liberty, even for those whose views they reject.See this reference to the views of Andrew Sullivan, for example.

Finally, Gjelten took the time to respond:

This is unfair. I draw a distinction between those biblical conservatives who oppose same-sex marriage on the basis of their religious beliefs and those religious freedom advocates, whether conservative or not, who support the right of people to oppose same-sex marriage. I call the former group conservative but religious freedom advocates, like Charles Haynes, may or may not themselves be conservative, and I think I was careful not to conflate the two. I never said or implied that all religious freedom advocates are conservative.

Obviously, the conservative vs. liberal terminology did not stand out to me when I read the story originally. Perhaps I am just accustomed to seeing the sides characterized that way. As a reminder, this was the opening on Gjelten's piece:

The collision of two core American values — freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination — is prompting a showdown in legislatures and courts across the country.For some conservatives, religious freedom means the right to act on their opposition to same-sex marriage and other practices that go against their beliefs. LGBT advocates and their allies, meanwhile, say no one in the United States should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation.

As I read it, Karidian's criticism is that a label ("conservatives") is applied to one side of the debate but not the other.  Gjelten, meanwhile, defends his description of religious conservatives but fails to explain, unless I'm missing it, why he doesn't label LGBT advocates as "liberals." 

What might be a possible solution, if one sees a problem? One might be to change "conservatives" to "people of faith" in that second paragraph. Elsewhere in the story, perhaps a more specific identifier — such as "evangelicals" — might be applied to those pushing religious freedom legislation. Of course, the term "evangelicals" brings its own set of complexities as far as defining exactly who falls under that umbrella.

What do you think, dear reader? Was the original language fair and accurate? Do you see a need for any tweaking in how such labels are applied? Might one's response be tied, to some degree, on whether that person sees "conservatives" or "liberals" or both as dirty words?

By all means, please join the conversation by commenting below or tweeting us at @GetReligion.

Image via

Categories: Main

Calling attention to 'important AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse' at N.C. church

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Important @AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse at a prosperity gospel church:

— Elizabeth Dias (@elizabethjdias) February 27, 2017

If you pay attention to religion headlines, you've probably heard about the exclusive Associated Press story this week on "years of ungodly abuse" at a North Carolina church.

The investigative piece — a mountain of a wire service report at more than 4,000 words — delivers the journalistic goods.

Here's a big chunk of the opening, which sets the scene:

SPINDALE, N.C. (AP) — From all over the world, they flocked to this tiny town in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, lured by promises of inner peace and eternal life. What many found instead: years of terror — waged in the name of the Lord.Congregants of the Word of Faith Fellowship were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls in a violent form of deliverance meant to "purify" sinners by beating out devils, 43 former members told The Associated Press in separate, exclusive interviews.Victims of the violence included pre-teens and toddlers — even crying babies, who were vigorously shaken, screamed at and sometimes smacked to banish demons."I saw so many people beaten over the years. Little kids punched in the face, called Satanists," said Katherine Fetachu, 27, who spent nearly 17 years in the church.Word of Faith Fellowship, an evangelical church with hundreds of members in North Carolina and branches in other countries, also subjected members to a practice called "blasting" — an ear-piercing verbal onslaught often conducted in hours-long sessions meant to cast out devils.As part of its investigation, the AP reviewed hundreds of pages of law enforcement, court and child welfare documents, along with hours of conversations with Jane Whaley, the church's controlling leader, secretly recorded by followers.The AP also spent more than a year tracking down dozens of former disciples who scattered after leaving the church. Many initially were reluctant to break their silence because they had hidden their pasts from new friends and colleagues — and because they remain afraid of Whaley.

If you don't have time to read the full report, there's an abridged version — about 1,100 words — that hits the high points.

As Time magazine religion writer Elizabeth Dias noted on Twitter, it's an "important @AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse at a prosperity gospel church." Kudos to Mitch Weiss, the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who produced the story.

There was a hiccup in AP's promotion of the story on social media:

BREAKING: AP INVESTIGATION: Ex-congregants say church leaders regularly beat adults, kids and babies - all in the name of the Lord.

— The Associated Press (@AP) February 27, 2017


Anybody think that tweet could have been just a little more specific?

I liked this response from Ben Dreyfuss:

@AP any particular church or just all of them

— Ben Dreyfuss (@bendreyfuss) February 27, 2017

But back to the story itself: I noticed that Bob Smietana, the veteran Godbeat pro and former president of the Religion News Association, shared the story:

"Congregants..were regularly punched, smacked, choked, slammed to the floor or thrown through walls..."

— Bob Smietana (@bobsmietana) February 27, 2017

You may recall that Smietana investigated an "end-times cat cult" last year:

'End-times cat cult': Why @bobsmietana's 'Apocalypse Meow' story really is the cat's meow

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) September 8, 2016

Given Smietana's experience reporting on such groups, I asked for his analysis of the AP piece. Here's what he told me in an email:

Questions about this church have been brewing for years. They were investigated in 1990s for child abuse, but the investigation was reportedly dropped because of lack of cooperation of church members. Then there's been two cases where church members allegedly kidnapped/beat gay members.  So this goes beyond the average, ex-members mad at their former church story. Add in the beliefs that the pastors/founders are prophets, who have a great deal of control over the lives of congregation members -- which are more common that you might expect-- and it's a story worth digging into. The AP appears to have done their homework--they interviewed 43 former members, reviewed documents, got a hold of tapes of church events/conversations with the leader, etc. That's a lot of work. I've done pieces on smaller controversial groups-- 50-60 people or so-- and it can take months or years to get someone to go on the record. They're often afraid of the former leader and also ashamed of what they experienced and fearful that no one will believe them. Stories like this are difficult for another reason. Often these churches are secretive or at least suspicious of outsiders. So it's not easy for a reporter just to show up and observe. And they rarely want to talk with the press. I wish they'd explained more about the appeal of the church -- what attracts people, why do they stay, what is it about Jane Whaley that's so appealing, etc.

I really appreciate Smietana's insights and would not disagree with any of them.

My own response to the story was twofold:

1. I found it to be an exceptional piece of journalism about an overwhelmingly depressing set of circumstances.

2. But I also found myself wanting some kind of takeaway to go along with the ugly facts. I mean, even the 1,100-word version persuaded me that something is seriously wrong. But what is the lesson to be learned? What is the solution? Is there one?

I'd welcome your thoughts, dear readers, on the story and your reaction to it. Feel free to leave a comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

Categories: Main

To Philly paper, do 4-foot crosses make Villanova span a bridge too far?

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Nestled 12 miles west of Philadelphia's Center City, Villanova University is and always has been a Roman Catholic institution, founded by two Augustinian priests in 1841. The school avoided damage from the 1844 Philadelphia Nativist Riots, although the financial impact on its sponsors closed the school for a season.

But from 1846 until today, Villanova has been a fixture in the academic firmament of southeastern Pennsylvania, in the "Main Line" suburb of Radnor. So much so that the school wants to construct a pedestrian bridge over busy Lancaster Avenue, joining two sections of the growing campus. Radnor officials approved the construction of the bridge at a recent board of commissioners (or, BOC) meeting.

Not exactly headline-grabbing news, right?

Well, 'Nova (as alumni fondly refer to the school) is Roman Catholic, and wouldn't you know, those good Catholic people like to put crosses on things, such as buildings on the campus? (Take a look at the opening sequence of the orientation video above. In about the first 20 seconds, there are plenty of crosses on campus buildings, and not just the main church, that are visible.)

And yes, 'Nova wants to place crosses on the new bridge. That makes it news, at least for the Philadelphia Inquirer, which topped its account with the hair-smoldering-if-not-on-fire headline:

Radnor approves Villanova's controversial cross-adorned pedestrian bridge

There's a bit of verbiage here, but read on to find the bone of contention:

The Radnor Township Board of Commissioners late Monday approved a controversial pedestrian bridge that would link Villanova University's main campus with a planned expansion on the southern side of Lancaster Avenue.The 6-0 decision, with board President Elaine P. Schaefer abstaining, came after an hour of debate and discussion over a key element of the bridge's design: 4-foot, 7-inch metal crosses atop stone pillars on opposite sides of the structure. In the end, the board concluded that it did not have the authority to regulate or prohibit the crosses. ... One of the opponents of the project, Sara Pilling, a longtime resident who lives a couple of blocks from the university, said she understands the township is constrained by the law."But I believe that Villanova is not following the spirit of the law," Pilling said.The bridge, part of a $285 million expansion project, is to be built over Lancaster Avenue and scheduled to be completed by 2018.The controversy arose when some Radnor residents called it an audacious show of religion that has no place in a township of many faiths.

Wow. Just wow. I seem to recall that a few short years ago, "audacity" was in vogue as a book title, but I suppose there are limits. Pilling, who is said to have earned a master's degree in community organizing from Eastern University and is a well-known community activist according to a Radnor Township newsletter, is clearly perturbed:

“I think they are overstepping their sense of ecumenism to shove these crosses in our faces,"  Pilling said in an interview before the meeting.

The Radnor chapter of the League of Women Voters also weighed in:

“While we recognize the importance of Villanova to our community and the notoriety it brings to Radnor, are there less ostentatious ways to reflect a Catholic institution?”  said the league’s Roberta Winters in an interview.

While the Inquirer's Susan Snyder, the paper's longtime education writer, allows the Rev. Peter Donohue, Villanova's president, to say that the school puts crosses on all its structures, the weight of the piece is to call the placement of the crosses on the bridge into question. There might, possibly, maybe, perhaps, be a constitutional issue: Pennsylvania state funds will contribute to part of the cost of constructing the bridge, but the bridge itself will be owned and maintained by the school once completed. (Not being a constitutional scholar, I'll set that question aside for the moment.)

Of greater concern, journalistically, is why reporter Snyder chose to dwell so much on the 4-foot-7-inch crosses planned for the bridge. Yes, there might also be a safety hazard should an overly enthusiastic 'Nova-ite climb on the pillars on which the cross will be affixed, but that is not a First Amendment issue.

The bulk of the quotes in the Inquirer story deal with the alleged imposition of the crosses on the community, and there's little attention paid to the right of Villanova to express its faith, or to any academic or legal scholar who might be able to add perspective.

Interestingly, a local paper, the Main Line Suburban Life, did what I believe is a better job capturing all sides of the discussion. Reporter Linda Stein was at the commissioner's meeting, too, but her account included more pro-bridge voices:

One [resident], Jim Giegarich, said that the idea of potential danger is “waving smoke around.” Even without the crosses “you’re still going to have those piers there,” he said. “And somebody is more likely then to climb up on it.” As far as installing smaller crosses, “fine architecture is a matter of scale,” he said. Shrinking it down would make it look “so diminutive that it’s going to look ridiculous.”“I don’t think anybody in this country in this day and age should be afraid to have a symbol of religion,” said Giegerich. “In fact if we had more symbols of religions, maybe our country would get to healing itself.”

And remember my point about a legal voice? Well, the Suburban Life account includes something rather significant the Inquirer apparently chose to omit: an assertion by a Villanova attorney that the law is on the university's side:

Nicholas Caniglia, the lawyer for Villanova, told the BOC that the courts have ordered other townships to pay significant damages to applicants in similar cases.“If they’re going to deny Villanova the right to put a cross on their land, a Catholic institution, and prohibit them from putting a cross on their land, I think you’re really looking, and I’ve never liked the word or two words, at a very slippery situation,” Caniglia said.

It's to be expected that an attorney representing Villanova would support the school's positions. And the Inquirer makes plain that there were those present who disagreed with Villanova's contentions.  But by suggesting that adding crosses makes this a church-state issue, and by omitting equally valid community voices in favor of the design, the Inquirer shortchanges its readers, making their story a bridge too far, I believe.

Categories: Main

The Wall Street Journal explores trends in Christian community life -- sort of

Thursday, March 2, 2017

For 40 years, I’ve been following trends in the Christian community movement, whether it’s been covenant communities among Catholic charismatics or inner city households populated by socially aware Protestants. During my early 20s, I lived two years in an inner-city common-purse community made up of charismatic American Baptists, so the trend truly spans all manner of doctrines and beliefs.

Which is why I was interested in a long article in the Wall Street Journal about a traditional Catholic community of families and monks in the Ozark mountains of eastern Oklahoma.

I had heard of Clear Creek but had never visited. Fortunately, the Journal’s new religion writer did. He wrote the following:

When the first few monks arrived in Hulbert, Okla., in 1999, there wasn’t much around but tough soil, a creek and an old cabin where they slept as they began to build a Benedictine monastery in the Ozark foothills.Dozens of families from California, Texas and Kansas have since followed, drawn by the abbey’s traditional Latin Mass—conducted as it was more than 1,000 years ago—and by the desire to live in one of the few communities in the U.S. composed almost exclusively of traditional Catholics…The 100 or so people living here are part of a burgeoning movement among traditional Christians. Feeling besieged by secular society, they are taking refuge in communities like this one, clustered around churches and monasteries, where faith forms the backbone of daily life. Similar villages—some Roman Catholic, others Orthodox or Protestant -- have sprung up in Alaska, Maryland, New York and elsewhere, drawing hundreds of families. As the proportion of Americans without any religious affiliation continues to grow, more Christians are considering where they can go to live out their faith more fully. It has been dubbed the “Benedict Option,” in homage to St. Benedict, who as a young man left the moral decay of ancient Rome to live in the wilderness. In Oklahoma, residents around the monastery call their home Clear Creek. …


The article goes on to refer to Rod “friend of this blog” Dreher’s upcoming "The Benedict Option" book, then swings back into a lengthy piece on the good and bad points of setting up a communal life in the sticks. When I finished it, I was not convinced that this movement is a trend by any means, as the writer only cites one other community to make his case.

That community –- which only got two paragraphs in the story -- is a group of Orthodox Christians who live within walking distance of St. John Orthodox Cathedral in Eagle River, Alaska.

It’s a shame the WSJ writer didn’t visit that group, as it’s a whole different scene than what he discovered in Oklahoma.

I dropped by the cathedral (pictured with this article) back in 2015 for a Sunday service and noticed the local streets named after saints and how many of the congregants lived walking distance from the church. Located a 20-minute drive north of Anchorage, it’s nowhere near as isolated as is the Clear Creek group.

Attention editors: There are dangers to taking an upcoming book, visiting one specific community (apparently) mentioned in the book, citing another and then extrapolating a national trend from it all.

When I came out with a book on Christian community in 2009, I was looking all over the country for likeminded communities that would welcome it. What I found was slim pickings. I’d be interested in learning that a mass movement had happened in the eight intervening years, but I’ve found that experiments like Clear Creek and St. John’s Cathedral are the exception.

This is also not the first time the Clear Creek and Eagle River folks have appeared together in an article. A 2014 piece in Crisis magazine cites Dreher's work and names the same two communities and is similar to the Journal piece, albeit it's critical of the Benedict Option. If you're going to profile a movement, try not to use the same two examples that other writers have used. 

It’s too bad more of Rod’s quotes on how many of these communities are out there were not included. I’m curious too as to how these folks are different from the Amish, Bruderhof (some tmatt coverage here) and Hutterite communities that have been doing much the same thing for decades.

I’m glad the writer found one person who disagreed with the community concept, but unfortunately, she was the wrong person to cite.

Isolated religious communities are not necessarily a happy place for all of their members. Samantha Field, 29, grew up in a fundamentalist Christian church in northwestern Florida, where members were discouraged from having contact with anyone outside the congregation.Separated from the wider world, she said, the church pastor became “spiritually abusive.” Women were treated like possessions, and gay people were demonized. “We didn’t call it the Benedict Option—the phrase we used was ‘doctrine of separation,’ ” said Ms. Field, who left that church while in college. “But it was the same thing. This has been done.”

A lone “fundamentalist Christian church” in red-state Florida is not the same as an intentional rural community like Clear Creek. You can't just cite an independent Protestant group in criticism of hierarchical Catholic and Orthodox groups. It's apples and oranges.

If you’re going to find a critic, latch onto Facebook groups of people who’ve lived in multi-household communities where they are geographically close to a church, have some form of income sharing or engage in a common industry. I listen in to one such group (of disenchanted Catholics who’ve been part of a group of Midwestern charismatic communities) whose members could have provided much better quotes.

I appreciated the piece and the effort taken to report it, but the article needed more.

What does the local bishop think of this group? How connected is Clear Creek to the Diocese of Tulsa? Yes, there are photos on the monastery's webpage of a visit by Cardinal Raymond Burke, but that says more about the community's isolation because Burke is not exactly in Pope Francis' good graces at the moment. If there’s anything I’ve heard from Catholics who’ve been members of such communities, it’s that they wished they hadn’t veered so far from the mainstream church but had found some way of integrating more parishes into their vision. 

Then again, the monastery has been featured recently by Our Sunday Visitor. Also by the Tulsa World. Can't get much more mainstream than that. But the Journal focused on the lay community near the monastery; a different kettle of fish. There's been a lot written about how even the best-intentioned communities sink into authoritarian tendencies. What steps is Clear Creek taking to make sure the Benedict Option doesn't go bad? 

Those are the questions people are asking and which journalists should be answering.

Photos are by the author and from

Categories: Main

Live coverage of Ash Wednesday stories? Be on alert for ironic theological twists out there

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Ah, yes. Another year, another trip around the liturgical calendar. That means another request from an editor for an Ash Wednesday feature or two.

Based on my own experiences in newsrooms, I have always wondered if the tradition of news organizations doing Ash Wednesday stories has something to do with the high number of ex-Catholics or cultural Catholics (as well as Episcopalians) in newsrooms. Who will show up for work in the afternoon with ashes on her or his forehead? What will people say (in a post-Ted Turner world)?

Then again, maybe Ash Wednesday is a story year after year because it's an assignment that comes with easy, automatic art. 

Finally, there is the fact that Ash Wednesday and Lent are highly serious religious traditions (think meditations on death and repentance) for the people that take faith seriously. However, for some reason, it also seems easy for people to tweak and/or laugh at these traditions. What editor doesn't want to smile in an ironic sort of way at an "ashes to go" lede? And there is an endless possibility of trendy (and stupid) variations on the "What are you going to give up for Lent" non-traditional tradition. 

Then again, it is possible (#Gasp) to do stories on the actual meaning of Lent and it's relevance to issues in our day and age.

Yes, ponder the spiritual implications of Ash Wednesday selfies. This very interesting advance story -- "#Ashtags: When posting Ash Wednesday photos, use your head" -- comes from Catholic News Service, via an online boost from Religion News Service. Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON (CNS) -- Ash Wednesday seems to offer contradictory messages. The Gospel reading for the day is about not doing public acts of piety but the very act of getting ashes -- and walking around with them -- is pretty public.This becomes even less of a private moment when people post pictures of themselves online with their ashes following the #ashtag trend of recent years.The online posting of one’s ashes, often marked in the form of a cross on the forehead, thrills some people and disappoints others. Some say it diminishes the significance and penitent symbol of the ashes with their somber reminder that humans are made from dust and one day will return to dust.Others say that sharing the Ash Wednesday experience with the broader, virtual public makes it more communal and also is a way to evangelize.

Others note that it's possible to do an Ash Wednesday selfie stick thing for good reasons, or bad reasons. What's the motive here?

This passage really interested me, in part because I think it raises several issues worthy of follow-up reporting. A key voice here is Julianne Stanz, "new evangelization" director for the Diocese of Green Bay:

Stanz ... pointed out that for millennials -- the group most likely to observe Lenten practices, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University -- “the digital space is an extension of their world and so posting an image after receiving ashes seems natural.”“Life doesn’t stop after we receive ashes. We go about our daily lives -- we wear our ashes at the grocery store, when picking up our children from school and at home gathered around the family table. Wearing ashes in the real and virtual world is about harmonizing who we are as people of faith. If we wear them in the ‘real’ world, then we should also wear them in cyberspace,” she said.

Wait, so millennials are really into fasting, almsgiving, extra prayers, lots of extra worship services and (here's a big point) going to confession? Or do they just like the focus on making a personal, innovative choice to give up something, including meat?

In other words, what does it mean to embrace "Lenten practices"? Does that mean honoring the ancient Christian traditions for this penitential season or creating some new, modern, even hip alternative? 

Also, are we talking about Catholic Lent, Eastern Orthodox Lent, Anglican Lent or, yes, even "Hey, we can be a little bit liturgical if we want to me" Protestant Lent? Check out this story from the doctrinally progressive Baptists at the Baptist News Global website.

The bottom line: What is your definition of "Lent" if the goal is find new and innovative ways to observe this ancient season?

Finding fresh ways to observe Lent, year in and year out, can be challenging.While Catholics, Episcopalians, Orthodox Christians and others can rely on tradition to guide them, some Christians and churches are left to their own devices. Fortunately for those in the latter category, an array of Lenten practices is available online, offering up hundreds of options via social media and social research.Americans who observe Lent were asked how they typically observe the season by LifeWay Research.The top answer, given by 57 percent of those asked, was abstaining from favorite foods and beverages, while 35 percent said they fast from bad habits during Lent.Some may be relieved to learn that Lent isn’t always about giving up something.

So what will journalists write about late today and into tomorrow, in terms of actual news-event coverage of Ash Wednesday?

Please help me look for examples of the coverage. Yes, that would include news -- I assume it's coming -- about the much publicized "Glitter Ash" liturgical movement from the LGBTQ groups Parity and Queer Virtue. That's the project that led to this memorable -- some would say heretical -- RNS advance lede that showed up in USA Today:

Lighten up, Ash Wednesday.

Stay tuned. I will be traveling all of tomorrow, so it may take me a day or so to return to the live coverage of these issues. Again, please leave us some comments about the good coverage, and bad, that you see out there in ink, online and in cable television.

Categories: Main

Sin and the stock market: On biblically responsible investing, who would Jesus quote first?

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

I like sin.

Wait a minute. Let me rephrase that: I like news stories about sin. They tend to fascinate me.

In my Associated Press days, I wrote about sin taxes.

In today's New York Times, there's a business story about an equally intriguing topic: sin stocks.

Two funds promote faith-based investing. But others see antigay intolerance

— NYT Business (@nytimesbusiness) March 1, 2017

Overall, the Times report is thorough and factual — answering most questions a typical reader would have. But yes, there's also an element of Kellerism. Isn't that almost always the case when the Old Gray Lady covers subject matter such as this?

What is Kellerism? Regular GetReligion readers don't need to ask. But for those new to this journalism-focused website, it's the reporting gospel according to former Times editor Bill Keller. Basically, that gospel — as explained by GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly — proclaims that the Times is justified in leaning left on cultural issues such as gay rights.

How does that doctrine manifest itself in the sin stocks story? See if you notice what I did:

Serving both God and money has long been an aim of fund companies that exclude “sin stocks” of companies dealing in tobacco, guns, gambling and the like in their investments.Now, two new exchange traded funds offer a conservative evangelical — what is called “biblically responsible” — tilt to that investing approach. The funds explicitly say in their regulatory filing that they will avoid buying shares in companies that have “any degree of participation in activities that do not align with biblical values,” including what they call the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender “lifestyle.”The approach is squarely at odds with that of nearly all of corporate America.Ninety-two percent of the Fortune 500 companies include “sexual orientation” in their nondiscrimination policies and 82 percent include “gender identity.” For the first time, half of Fortune 500 companies offer transgender-inclusive health care benefits, including for surgical procedures.“There are millions of people, including people of faith, for whom discrimination is not a biblical value,” said Mark Snyder, the director of communications for the Equality Federation, a national advocacy group. “Businesses have been leading the fight for full equality over the last few years. L.G.B.T. people are part of the fabric of our nation. We have families, we go to work, we simply wish to be treated equally.”

No, this isn't a scare quotes post (although maybe it should be).

Here's my actual question: Did you see who the Times quoted first? That's right — a gay-rights advocate.

The journalist in me wonders: Wouldn't it be fairer to quote first a spokesperson for the biblically responsible funds? Shouldn't the funds' organizers receive an opportunity to explain where they stand on LGBT nondiscrimination? Are employee benefits really the issue here?

Keep reading, and the Times does quote such a source — and by my reading, the funds have no problem with LGBT benefits. Rather, they're concerned with activist companies pushing a gay-rights agenda, in opposition to what they believe the Bible teaches on human sexuality.

So why raise the nondiscrimination issue before giving the funds a chance to explain?

Here's the relevant response to which I refer:

The chief executive of the company that introduced the two new funds, Inspire Investing, says he has no problems with companies providing benefits to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender employees and having nondiscrimination policies. “As Christians, we love our neighbors in the L.G.B.T. community and encourage companies to provide equal employee benefits for all,” said the chief executive, Robert Netzly.But he added, “A company deciding to spend money and time to pursue a hard-line activist agenda that has nothing to do with their core business is a different issue, and is a waste of investor dollars.”

Again, I can't help but ask: Why delay that crucial information? Why give readers an initial erroneous impression before clarifying? Could there be any other explanation besides Kellerism?

Feel free to comment below or by tweeting us at @GetReligion. Let he who believes my analysis is not without sin cast the first stone.

Image via

Categories: Main

From Jerusalem to Standing Rock, victors recast past to reflect their religious worldviews

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jerusalem's Temple Mount -- as Jews call it in English, or the Noble Sanctuary, the English version of its Muslim name -- is arguably the world's most fought over bit of sacred land.

Today, the area is under Muslim control and houses the magnificent shrine known as the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. Of course these Muslim structures are only the latest in a long line of religious structures that have graced the leveled hilltop.

Over the many centuries, Jews, Romans, and Christians preceded Muslims in claiming the site as their own, as I'm sure most GetReligion readers are well aware.

If so, why reiterate this history?

To make the point that dedicating a location to whatever God or gods are favored by the faith of whoever happens to hold political sway over the site at any given moment is a time-honored way to humble the vanquished and exalt the victorious.

In other words, constructing churches atop the ruins of synagogues, and mosques atop the ruins of churches, or -- as happens in India -- Hindu temples atop the ruins of mosques, and vice versa, seems to be just another bit of nasty human disregard for those who are different from us but over who we have power.

Now to my question of the week.

Was the just concluded (for now, anyway), months-long Standing Rock Dakota Access pipeline protest a contemporary example of -- no pun intended -- literally lording it over Native American spiritual beliefs about the intrinsic sacredness of ancestral lands?

If my analogy works, the victor in this case would be the culturally Judeo-Christian construct of American beliefs concerning land ownership and use as stipulated by the government. In short, think of the North Dakota episode as a continuation of the European subjugation of what were historically dismissed as matters of Native American pagan religious ignorance.

Standing Rock was not an easy story to report or follow. In addition to the physical hardships reporters onsite had to endure, the story encapsulated myriad issues that were hard to tease apart. As such, it allowed journalists to approach it from an angle that suited their individual buttons, political and even religious.

Environmental issues focused on potential drinking water contamination should the pipeline leak, and the larger question of continued fossil fuel reliance and climate change. Economic issues included the more than $3.8 billion previously invested in the almost completed pipeline, jobs and fuel costs for Americans. Legal issues involved property rights and the regulatory permitting process.

Then there was the religion component, of which two angles come to mind.

The first is the involvement of non-Native American (primarily culturally liberal) religious leaders and groups who, for various reasons, sided with the Standing Rock protesters.

The second, and more pertinent to this post, is the question of dealing with the sacred spaces of others. My GetReligion colleague Julia Duin previously addressed this in relation to the pipeline back in November.

To restate my question from above: Was Standing Rock, at its unspoken core, another example of a kind of physical replacement theology of which humans seem so fond, and that we've seen in Jerusalem?

Moreover, was the decision of the judge who dismissed a suit brought by the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes who sought to halt the pipeline on religious freedom grounds no different in its essence than how more powerful victors with a favored religious world view have always acted?

Pope Francis weighed in on this deeper issue in a general manner just last week. Here's the top of The Guardian story on his comments.

In the 15th century papal bulls promoted and provided legal justification for the conquest and theft of indigenous peoples’ lands and resources worldwide - the consequences of which are still being felt today. The right to conquest in one such bull, the Romanus Pontifex, issued in the 1450s when Nicholas V was the Pope, was granted in perpetuity.How times have changed. Last week, over 560 years later, Francis, the first Pope from Latin America, struck a rather different note - for indigenous peoples around the world, for land rights, for better environmental stewardship. He said publicly that indigenous peoples have the right to “prior and informed consent.” In other words, nothing should happen on - or impact - their land, territories and resources unless they agree to it.“I believe that the central issue is how to reconcile the right to development, both social and cultural, with the protection of the particular characteristics of indigenous peoples and their territories,” said Francis, according to an English version of his speech released by the Vatican’s press office.“This is especially clear when planning economic activities which may interfere with indigenous cultures and their ancestral relationship to the earth,” Francis went on. “In this regard, the right to prior and informed consent should always prevail, as foreseen in Article 32 of the [UN] Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Only then is it possible to guarantee peaceful cooperation between governing authorities and indigenous peoples, overcoming confrontation and conflict.”

The Rev. Martin E. Marty -- a church historian who should need no introduction to religion-news consumers -- also addressed the larger issue of native sacred sites in this post on Sightings, the blog he started at the University of Chicago School of Divinity that also takes a close look at media religion coverage.

He began his piece from early February with a blunt question.

What if the Sioux Nation decided to build a pipeline through Arlington Cemetery?

Yeah, I know. Won't ever happen.

But it's a pertinent question nonetheless, particularly if you consider how many burial grounds -- de facto sacred sites, i'd say -- have been destroyed by members of religions other than the one practiced by those buried there.

So I'll ask again.

Is what happened at Standing Rock a latter-day form of triumphant supersessionism? (Yes, I know supersessionism, strictly speaking, refers to Christian-Jewish relations.)

What do you have to say, religion scribes and other interested readers? Please share your opinions in the comment section below.

Also, get ready for another possible Native American sacred ancestral land story if President Donald Trump tries to press forward with his Mexico border wall pledge in any shape or form. This time it will involve the Tohono O'odham tribe whose ancestral land is split by the Arizona-Mexico border.

Many of the details are in this New York Times story. Stay tuned.

Categories: Main

Is everything just politics? How The New York Times, others viewed death of evangelical Doug Coe

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Barely four weeks after the February 2 National Prayer Breakfast he managed for so many years, evangelical lay pastor Doug Coe died on February 21 of complications from a heart attack and a stroke. He was 88, and had for 48 years led the Fellowship Foundation, referred to in some accounts as the International Foundation and as a private group also known as The Family.

The late German novelist Thomas Mann is credited with first saying "Everything is political," and one might derive that impression from looking at The New York Times and other media accounts of Coe's life and work, something a GetReligion reader noted in calling our attention to the Gray Lady's obituary.

Take it away, Times:

Mr. Coe was regarded by many political and business leaders as a spiritual mentor who blurred the line between religion and philosophy. Many in his orbit, including presidents and members of Congress of both major parties, described him as a quiet organizer who used spirituality to build relationships, often with unlikely allies.In her 2003 memoir, “Living History,” Hillary Clinton recalled Mr. Coe as “a genuinely loving spiritual mentor and guide to anyone, regardless of party or faith, who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God and offer the gift of service to others in need.”As a senator from New York, Mrs. Clinton was also a frequent attendee of a smaller weekly prayer group for members of Congress that Mr. Coe led personally for years.

Yes, but did that have an impact on party politics?

It's not possible, I suppose, that someone could merely work privately to advance an understanding of their religious beliefs. Nope, there has to be something else behind it, right?

Saith the Times

[Coe's] proximity to so many high-ranking politicians made him an object of curiosity in Washington, while inviting speculation about his motives and ideology. He rarely spoke in public or to the news media. In private gatherings he was known to use improbable metaphors -- likening Maoists and Nazis, for example, to religious zealots and extolling them as effective leaders.

Granted, it is sometimes difficult to capture the entirety of someone's thinking in a single obit, and given that there's no link to the actual remarks Coe is alleged to have made about Nazis and Maoists, it's also difficult for the reader who has no access to their context to properly judge just how "improbable" those metaphors were. After all, plenty of scholars and others, including the U.S. Holocaust Museum, noted the raw power of the late Leni Riefenstahl's cinematography in the service of Hitler's National Socialist movement, without endorsing the despot.  (And, no, gentle reader, I'm not suggesting either Maoist politics or Nazism as worthy of emulation.)

So was Coe a quiet influence for good, or a stealth political force seeking to break down the wall of separation between church and state? According to the Washington Post remembrance, Coe certainly had his critics:

In the past decade, the Fellowship drew unflattering attention after several politicians it had embraced -- among them former senator John Ensign (R-Nev.) and former governor and now Rep. Mark Sanford (R-S.C.) -- confessed to extramarital affairs. A house on C Street SE in Washington, owned by a Fellowship affiliate and rented to a bipartisan group of legislators who participated in Fellowship activities, was described in the New Yorker magazine as a “frat house for Jesus.”An investigative journalist, Jeff Sharlet, documented what he alleged to be the Fellowship’s theocratic ambitions in two books “The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power” (2008) and “C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy” (2010).Among other accusations, Sharlet charged that the Fellowship helped push a legislative effort in Uganda to make acts of homosexuality a capital offense. A Fellowship member, J. Robert Hunter, told the New York Times that numerous Fellowship members had spoken out against the legislation.

Yet Sharlet, who made a minor specialty off of his research on Coe and company, wasn't the only one to sound an alarm: World magazine, in 2009, raised concerns about the Fellowship's dealings, finances and seemingly indistinct theology, wherein it was noted that those affiliating with the group "are not becoming Christians, they are following Jesus." Coe, several accounts reported, said, "Jesus wasn’t a Christian."

Another way of looking at Coe's life and work is hinted at in many accounts: He really was a "stealth evangelist," shunning the limelight, eschewing self-promotion and keeping the focus where he, Coe, felt it was important -- on the life and teachings of Jesus. To its credit, Religion News Service's Adelle M. Banks acknowledges this with a quote near the top of her Coe obituary:

“In a town where powerful people are constantly trying to increase their name recognition and their brand, Doug Coe was the opposite of that,” said Michael Cromartie, director of the Evangelicals in Civic Life program at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center. “He was a man who liked to work behind the scenes, who did not call attention to himself, who was a sort of a pastor to people in power.”

While The New York Times and the Washington Post avoid flinging the "fundamentalist" label with the carelessness the Times demonstrated in recalling the life of Tim LaHaye last summer, there's still an emphasis on the seemingly dark aspects of Coe's activity in the political realm, but with little foundation other than a one-off scandal 10 years ago and the repeated carpings of one critic. When even Hillary Clinton calls Coe a good person, perhaps his thinking merits a second look.

Sometimes, everything is not political, or even primarily so.

Categories: Main

From awful to fantastic: Three lessons in NPR's Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde coverage of religious freedom

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

It seems like just yesterday that we were bashing NPR's flawed coverage of the religious freedom issue.

Because it was just yesterday:

No, this @NPR story isn't #fakenews. But it's certainly flawed. #journalism

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) February 27, 2017

What a difference a day makes!:

Twenty-four little hours Brought the sun and the flowers Where there used to be rain song by Dinah Washington

It's not often that the same news organization — in this case, NPR — fumbles the ball away in the end zone, then immediately returns a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.

However, that's exactly what has transpired in NPR's Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde coverage of the battle pitting gay rights vs. religious liberty.

To refresh everyone's memory, yesterday's post highlighted three problems with NPR's coverage: 1. Scare quotes on "religious freedom." 2. Use of the editorialized phrase "so-called religious freedom bills." 3. Favoritism toward the gay-rights side of the debate.

But this morning, GetReligion reader Darrell Turner pointed me toward a different NPR report covering the same subject matter:

The collision of two core American values is prompting a showdown in legislatures and courts across the country

— NPR (@NPR) February 28, 2017

The lede of today's story:

The collision of two core American values — freedom of religion and freedom from discrimination — is prompting a showdown in legislatures and courts across the country.For some conservatives, religious freedom means the right to act on their opposition to same-sex marriage and other practices that go against their beliefs. LGBT advocates and their allies, meanwhile, say no one in the United States should face discrimination because of their sexual orientation.


This latest piece is absolutely fantastic: 1. No scare quotes. 2. No biased language such as "so-called." 3. No favoritism — it clearly explains both sides and fairly represents each side's arguments and concerns.

Perhaps I'm letting the awfulness of yesterday's report influence me, but today's report impresses me as one of the best I've seen on the religious freedom debate: Intelligent sources are quoted on both sides. When one side makes a claim, the other is given an adequate opportunity to respond. Even intricate details that often get short shrift in news coverage — such as the question of freedom of worship vs. freedom of expression — are addressed:

Not all faith leaders are convinced, however, that the push for LGBT rights is jeopardizing the religious freedom of people who hold conservative beliefs about sexuality and marriage.During a recent appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, Bishop Michael Curry, leader of the Episcopal Church in the United States, said he has witnessed the persecution of Christians in other parts of the world and doesn't see anything comparable in the United States."I'm not worried about my religious freedom," Curry said. "I get up and go to church on Sunday morning, ain't nobody stopping me. My freedom to worship is protected in this country, and that's not going to get taken away. I have been in places where that's been infringed. That's not what we're talking about."Curry's reference only to "freedom to worship," however, missed the point, according to some religious freedom advocates. They say they want the freedom to exercise their faith every day of the week, wherever they are — even if it means occasionally challenging the principle of absolute equality for all."We can't use equality to just wipe out one of the [First Amendment] rights," [Stanley Carlson-Thies, founder of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance] says, "or say you can have the right, as long as you just exercise it in church, but not out in life."

Go ahead and read (or listen) to the full report. It's worth your time.

Meanwhile, what lessons can we learn comparing NPR's first story with this latest one? Quickly, I'll suggest three:

1. We (and I certainly include "me"  in that "we") need to be careful not to overgeneralize when discussing major news organizations. That's always a struggle for those of us who do media criticism. Especially when we see the same error or bias more than once from the same organization, we're tempted to say, for example, that NPR "always" puts scare quotes on religious freedom. But NPR — and counterparts such as the New York Times and The Associated Press — are complex organizations involving hundreds of individual reporters and editors. So while we certainly can identify trends in coverage, we need to think twice before using a broad stroke in our criticism.

2. We need to be educated readers. When I hear people say things like, "Read the Washington Post because it's a factual news source that can be trusted," I generally agree. But not every Post story passes that test (this is just one negative example from last week). Someone told me that the Post, for example, publishes 1,000 pieces a day — there's obviously going to be some fluctuation in quality and sourcing in all those stories. That's where it's helpful for readers to know the difference between solid and squishy journalism. Fortunately, there are websites (i.e. GetReligion) focused on helping readers in that regard. (Please forgive the shameless plug.)

3. It doesn't hurt to pay attention to certain bylines. Once you hear the byline on today's NPR story, the quality and fairness of the reporting won't surprise you as much. Tom Gjelten, NPR's excellent Godbeat pro, continues to impress me. When I see his name attached to an NPR report, I am inclined to trust it. The same holds true when I see Sarah Pulliam Bailey's name atop a Washington Post story or Peter Smith's name atop a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story or Jaweed Kaleem's name atop a Los Angeles Times story (and I'm leaving out many other journalists, those who cover religion and more general beats, who fall under that category).

Even with those I've named, don't forget that old journalistic adage: "If your mother says she loves you, check it out." It's not just great advice for reporters. Readers, too, benefit from a healthy measure of skepticism.

Categories: Main

'Iran' plus 'divorce' in the news: Did faith have anything to do with this boy's horrible death?

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

In the very first GetReligion post in 2004, Doug Leblanc and I created a concept that has been central to this blog's work ever since -- the idea of religion "ghosts" in mainstream news reports.

The basic idea is that many important stories are shaped, in part, by religious beliefs and traditions, but journalists often fail to realize this (or don't want to deal with it). Thus, you get a "haunted" story in which readers can sense that something important is missing, but they can't tell what.

As you would expect, readers frequently send me emails with a URL to a news report and then the phrase, "Major ghost in this story," or something like that. The key is that they often don't tell us what they think the ghost is.

Here is a perfect example, taken from The Washington Post. The headline hints at the horrors in this hellish case: " ‘A crime so horrific’: Mom gets 50 years for poisoning, burning her 5-year-old son."

In the two years since she poisoned her 5-year-old son with cold medicine and staged a fiery car crash with his body wedged on a back-seat floorboard, Narges Shafeirad has never publicly said why she did it.On Monday, in a Maryland courtroom, she had her chance. Shafeirad, 35, spoke about a bitter divorce and custody fight she was enduring, and how she’d been ­depressed.“I was a broken woman,” she said, adding that her son was everything to her. “I am still not able to believe that I have lost my son.”Shafeirad’s words -- spoken just before she was sentenced to 50 years for the murder of Daniel Dana -- left the judge in front of a packed courtroom searching for an explanation.

One more horrible detail, out of many:

Earlier in the hearing, prosecutors listed bruises and abrasions around Daniel’s mouth that showed how Shafeirad force-fed him a full bottle of cold medicine. She continued doses every two to four hours until he was dead, according to prosecutors.

Now, why did our reader think that there was a religion ghost in this story? I can only assume it was because this case involves to telltale words -- "Iran" and "divorce." You put those two words together and people are going to assume that this bitter divorce, including fights over custody of their son, had something to do with Islam and Iranian culture.

Truth be told, I do not know if that is the case here. What relevant information does the story contain? Next to nothing. Would it have been better if the Post team had asked this question, in order to resolve it one way or the other? Maybe. Honestly, I don't know.

In this story about the end of the trial, this is all readers were told:

Daniel was the only child of Shafeirad and Hamid Dana. The couple had met in Iran and married in 2007, according to court records. Daniel was born in 2009, and by 2011 all three were living in ­Gaithersburg.But two years later, the couple separated and went through a bitter divorce, previous court filings show. Joint custody was worked out, with Daniel staying with his mother four days a week and his father three days a week, according to court documents. But the acrimony grew.At one point, according to documents, Shafeirad told her husband: “I will make you cry. You will be sorry.”

Now, note that this does not appear to be one of the infamous cases involving a man from Iran and a woman from America or some other location in the West.

In an earlier Post story about the case there was more information that makes this clear, including the husband's full name -- Hamid Azimi-Dana.

Court records -- both for her divorce and the murder case -- capture pieces of Shafeirad’s history.She was born in Iran, where she met Azimi-Dana, who had immigrated to the United States but made trips back home. ... The couple were married in Tehran on Dec. 17, 2007, according to court records. Daniel was born July 21, 2009. By July 2011, all three family members were living in Gaithersburg.But the marriage was troubled. In June 2013, the couple separated. A month later, Shafeirad and Azimi-Dana filed requests for restraining orders against each other -- with each alleging in court filings that the other had physically abused them in front of their son.

Jealousy may have played a role, since Azimi-Dana had hired a nanny to help care for the son.

But the most recent story, the one sent in by our reader, also included this statement:

One of Shafeirad’s attorneys, Melanie Creedon, said her client wasn’t driven by jealous rage and that the 2015 crime did not follow a calculated plan. The custody battle, Creedon said, had left Shafeirad suffering from anxiety and a sense of “impending doom.” Shafeirad lost her job caring for an older person, and found out she was about to be evicted. “This was an act of a helpless and hopeless, broken woman who had basically reached the end, and who saw no way out,” Creedon said.

So what else is there to say? May religion and culture have played a role in this?

It's possible that, due to the divorce, Shafeirad had been cast out of whatever Iranian community they were part of in Maryland, including a mosque that would normally have helped members in this kind of emergency. This would have added to her sense of isolation and doom.

If you read up on marriage and divorce in Iranian culture, it is clear that patriarchy plays a major role and that women get the short end of this. As is often the case, cultural rules are often stated in ways that make it sound like they are linked to faith and tradition.

Was that the case here. We do not know. There is not enough information. It's possible that the judge didn't allow these topics into the trial, fearing prejudice. In the end, we know nothing about the family's faith or the degree to which they practiced their faith.

So is there a "religion ghost" here? Should the Post team have probed this point simply because many readers -- once again "divorce" plus "Iran" equals trouble -- would assume that Islamic culture had something to do with this tragedy? Should they have interviewed feminists and legal scholars who have studied these issues in depth?

Frankly, I would have dug into that. However, I do not think this is a clear case.

What think ye, readers?

MAIN IMAGES: Photos from Montgomery County Sheriff's office

Categories: Main

Look for the full AP report! Pope Francis is showing mercy to a few pedophile priests

Monday, February 27, 2017

It is, without a doubt, one of the most frustrating, infuriating things that can happen to a reporter.

You write your story. You are extra careful -- since it's on an emotional topic full of fact-claims that are in dispute -- to make sure that you have included several qualified voices offering competing points of view. You make sure your story is the length assigned by the editors.

You turn the story in. Then, when it comes out (this happens A LOT in ink-on-paper news) you see that the copy desk has -- for some reason, often page layout -- basically cut the story nearly in half. To make matters worse, the editors didn't thin the story in a way that left the balanced structure intact. They just chopped off the end.

Some of your sources are furious. They accuse you of bias, because the story is so one-sided. They have no way to know that the printed story is not the story that you wrote.

I bring this up because I saw an Associated Press story the other day -- with a Vatican dateline -- that had me really shaking my head. It had, I thought, all kinds of problems in terms of balance and essential information. It didn't help that this was on a very controversial topic, one cutting against the grain of most reporting about Pope Francis. The lede:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Pope Francis has quietly reduced sanctions against a handful of pedophile priests, applying his vision of a merciful church even to its worst offenders in ways that survivors of abuse and the pope's own advisers question.

Now, there is no need for me to go into the many problems that I had with this report. Why? Because the story that I ran into online was a horribly truncated version of the full report by veteran reporter Nicole Winfield.

Oh the humanity! When I saw the full story on the AP homepage I was left with very view questions. Only one, in fact. Hold that thought. This is a very solid story about a very complicated topic.

Here is the heart of the story. Yes, note the ironic fact that this pope's much-publicized emphasis on mercy -- journalists rarely place this in the context of his many statements on sin and confession -- is at the heart of the controversy. Also note that people are having to give the now-retired Pope Benedict XVI some high marks on this issue.

One case has come back to haunt him: An Italian priest who received the pope's clemency was later convicted by an Italian criminal court for his sex crimes against children as young as 12. The Rev. Mauro Inzoli is now facing a second church trial after new evidence emerged against him, The Associated Press has learned.The Inzoli case is one of several in which Francis overruled the advice of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and reduced a sentence that called for the priest to be defrocked, two canon lawyers and a church official told AP. Instead, the priests were sentenced to penalties including a lifetime of penance and prayer and removal from public ministry.In some cases, the priests or their high-ranking friends appealed to Francis for clemency by citing the pope's own words about mercy in their petitions, the church official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the proceedings are confidential."With all this emphasis on mercy ... he is creating the environment for such initiatives," the church official said, adding that clemency petitions were rarely granted by Pope Benedict XVI, who launched a tough crackdown during his 2005-2013 papacy and defrocked some 800 priests who raped and molested children.

Note the care with which Winfield used the anonymous sources. Yes, there are no names, but readers are left with crucial factual details that provide context.

There is much more. For example, Pope Francis appears to have ordered the dismissal of three veteran Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith staff members who handle sex-abuse cases.

The story flashes back to how St. Pope John Paul II eventually evolved to take a tougher stance on this issue. Francis has backed a "zero tolerance" stance, but now appears to have modified that in some cases. Why?

Victim advocates have long questioned Francis' commitment to continuing Benedict's tough line, given he had no experience dealing with abusive priests or their victims in his native Argentina. While Francis counts Boston's Cardinal Sean O'Malley as his top adviser on abuse, he has also surrounded himself with cardinal advisers who botched handling abuse cases in their archdioceses."They are not having zero tolerance," said Rocio Figueroa, a former Vatican official and ex-member of the Peru-based Sodalitium Christianae Vitae, a conservative Catholic lay society rocked by sex scandals. The Vatican recently handed down sanctions against the group's founder after determining that he sexually, psychologically and physically abused his recruits. His victims, however, are enraged that it took the Vatican six years to decide that the founder should be isolated, but not expelled, from the community.The church official stressed that to his knowledge, none of Francis' reduced sentences had put children at risk.

So what part of this AP story do I question?

Well, for many abuse victims, it has added insult to hellish injury that the bishops supervising pedophiles and ephebophiles have paid little or no price for their efforts -- in many cases -- to shield these priests from justice, including quietly transferring the accused to new parishes with no warning to the faithful.

Thus, I was stunned when the following information was placed at the end of the story, rather than near the top. This paragraph concerns some proposals from Pope Francis' own sex-abuse advisory commission.

Francis scrapped the commission's proposed tribunal for bishops who botch abuse cases following legal objections from the congregation. The commission's other major initiative -- a guideline template to help dioceses develop policies to fight abuse and safeguard children -- is gathering dust. The Vatican never sent the template to bishops' conferences, as the commission had sought, or even linked it to its main abuse-resource website.

That is stunning news. 

Nevertheless, this is a solid report on a major news story involving one of the most powerful and charismatic religious leaders in the world. How do journalists ignore this story?

Thus, look for follow-up coverage in other news outlets?

Categories: Main

This news isn't fake, but it's flawed: Three problems with NPR's report on religious freedom bills

Monday, February 27, 2017

LGBTQ advocates fear "religious freedom" bills moving forward in states.

— NPR (@NPR) February 26, 2017

Well, that didn't last long.

A week after Donald Trump's stunning election as president, I wrote a GetReligion post with this title:

Based on Trump's win, it looks like religious liberty really is a thing — with no scare quotes

In that post, I gave a brief history of biased and lackluster media coverage of religious freedom bills tied to conscience claims by people of faith. (If any of this is new to you, I'd encourage you to take a moment and read that post before proceeding with this one.)

In a nutshell, here's the issue I explored back in November:

Fast-forward to the 2016 presidential election, which was won by a candidate — Donald Trump — who pledged in a letter to Catholics last month to "defend your religious liberties and the right to fully and freely practice your religion, as individuals, business owners and academic institutions."It seems that — to many voters — religious freedom was an important issue in the Nov. 8 election. An issue to which many news organizations were tone-deaf, based on their previously mentioned coverage.So will coverage of this subject improve based on a new president in the White House?Perhaps.

I then cited a newsy, balanced Associated Press story that raised my hopes for better journalism.

I'm not feeling as optimistic, though, after a reader called my attention to a weekend NPR report on religious freedom bills. On the positive side, the NPR piece offers a nice case study in how a news organization that claims "impartiality" ought not to cover the issue.

Here are three problems with NPR's story — honk if you've heard any of these before here at GetReligion:

1. Scare quotes on "religious freedom"

As we've explained once or twice or a zillion times, many major news organizations insist on putting quote marks around terms such as "religious liberty" and "religious freedom." 

As defines scare quotes, they are "a pair of quotation marks used around a term or phrase to indicate that the writer does not think it is being used appropriately or that the writer is using it in a specialized sense."

So, a few days ago when NPR reported on sanctuary churches housing immigrants and citing religious freedom, that term got no scare quotes. But when NPR covers conscience legislation in Bible Belt states such as Alabama and Mississippi, "religious freedom" always seems to get scare quotes.

And yes, this weekend's online headline relied on scare quotes:

LGBTQ Advocates Fear 'Religious Freedom' Bills Moving Forward In States

Biased much?

2. So-called religious freedom

But can listeners hear scare quotes on the air? Nope, but NPR has that covered, too. 

There's more than one way for a not-so-impartial news report to flag its skepticism:

There are renewed efforts at the state level to pass so-called religious freedom bills. LGBTQ rights advocates believe that's because local lawmakers are anticipating support from the Trump administration.

Here we go again:

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

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 9, 2015

In so-called news story on #BoycottTarget, Associated Press shows its bias:

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) May 4, 2016

Yes, we'll keep defending journalism essentials, even when faced with 'so-called' impartiality

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) June 22, 2016

The Associated Press Stylebook — "the journalist's bible" — recommends that "so-called" be used sparingly. As I've suggested before, I see plenty of room for news organizations — NPR in this case — to use it more sparingly. It screams editorialization and bias.

3. Favoritism toward the gay-rights side

Framing is frequently a problem in news coverage of religious freedom legislations and lawsuits.

Here is a typical example with some excellent background that remains relevant:

Same-sex wedding cakes: Journalistic framing again comes into play: #religion #SSM

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) February 6, 2015

Overall, the NPR story is framed in a tilted way that presents the issue primarily as LGBT advocates concerned about gay rights as opposed to, you know, people of faith seeking to protect their freedom of conscience.

Strangely, the written version of the NPR report is even more slanted than the audio story. (I have no idea how an NPR story goes from audio to written form, so any theories of mine on the difference between the two would be pure speculation.)

In the written version, the first three sources are all LGBT advocates. But on the audio report, a voice on the other side gets a chance to respond earlier rather than at the end.

Still, both versions suffer from framing bias. It's more obvious in the written report:

In Alabama, there's a bill that allows adoption agencies that are religiously affiliated to hold true to their faith if they don't think same-sex couples should be parents. The psychiatric community has found no evidence that having same-sex parents harms children.

After reading the line about the psychiatric community, I made a note on my printout: "Is that even the point?"

The written story keeps going without a response from the faith side. But in the audio version, NPR immediately goes to a soundbite buried at the end of the written report. Speaking is Rep. Richard Wingo, the Alabama House bill's sponsor:

"It doesn't matter what I think," he says. "If you are a follower of Christ then what matters is what does the word of God say. What does God say about it?"

For those new to GetReligion, let me stress that I am making a case for journalism that treats both sides fairly and gives each an equal opportunity to present its point of view. 

If NPR truly is committed to impartiality, it must work harder to make sure stories such as this one don't favor one side (and generally for NPR, that would be the progressive side).

No, the story critiqued isn't fake news. But it's certainly flawed.

Categories: Main

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly: Sharing a few big ideas in a long goodbye

Monday, February 27, 2017

How do you telescope nearly 20 years of a show about religion into an hour or two?

Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, the PBS news magazine that made television religion-coverage history, announced late last year that it was ending its long run in mid-February of this year. It used its last two episodes to sum up the changes and trends the show has covered since its debut in September 1997.

Meanwhile, erstwhile funder, the Lilly Endowment, is sinking its money into another venture involving religion and ethics. More on that in a moment.

R&EN took awhile to wrap up what’s been an impressive haul of stories. Here’s a show that sent correspondents to cover the faith community’s help in cleaning up after Hurricane Katrina; the work of Catholic Relief Services after the 2004 tsunami that devastated parts of southeast Asia and the deaths and elections of Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the current Pope Francis.

Their Rome coverage alone was amazing considering they had not nearly the budget nor personnel as did the larger TV networks.

This month, the show’s correspondents each focused on a different aspect of the show’s coverage as well as which of the many things they covered still stands out. Judy Valente chose programs on America’s poor

JUDY VALENTE, correspondent: In my years reporting for Religion & Ethics, I interviewed many people who not only had compelling stories to tell, but ended up deeply touching my own life. One of those unforgettable people lived in tiny Pine Apple, Alabama, a place so poor many residents still get their water from outdoor spigots. Dr. Roseanne Cook cared for the poorest of Pine Apple’s poor. Not known to most of her patients, she also happens to be a Sister of St. Joseph, a Catholic nun. She told one story I will never forget, about being robbed on a secluded road.

Kim Lawton focused on the show’s interfaith coverage and the growth of the “nones.”

KIM LAWTON, correspondent: Over the last two decades, we’ve covered some major shifts across America’s religious landscape. When we first went on the air, the big religion demographics story had been the so-called “mainline decline” -- the significant loss of members in denominations that had long been considered the religious establishment. Interfaith dialogue usually consisted of Christians and Jews getting together.One of the biggest changes since then has been a rising recognition of America’s complex religious diversity. In 2012, the Pew Research Center announced that while the US remains a majority Christian nation, for the first time ever, the share of Protestant Christians dropped below 50%. About 70 percent of Americans overall are Christians, but the number of Americans who are part of non-Christian faiths, especially Muslims and Hindus, continues to rise.Another key demographic change has been the dramatic rise of the religiously-unaffiliated, the so-called “nones.” That’s N-o-n-e-s. Today, more than 20 percent of all Americans say they do not identify with any particular religion. And the drop in affiliation is especially evident among young adults.

Lucky Severson focused on interesting Christian personalities, such as Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber and the Rev. Michael Doyle of Sacred Heart Church in Camden, N.J. 

Bob Abernethy focused on some of the best quotes from his lengthy interviews with older, wiser personalities, such as the late William Sloane Coffin, the late author Phyllis Tickle and author Frederick Buechner. After asking the latter about what makes him a believer, 

ABERNETHY: And then we talked about suffering.BUECHNER: You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist. You can’t believe in an all-powerful, all-loving God and look at the horrors. But my answer to myself is, don’t give up hope. Don’t give up hope. God is greater than all those things. The holy transcends all the wretchedness.

Tim O’Brien talked about Supreme Court decisions in which religion played a part. And Fred de Sam Lazaro reported on his coverage of issues affecting women overseas: Fistulas in Ethiopia, sex trafficking, surrogate mothering and abortion in India. 

FRED DE SAM LAZARO, correspondent: It feels somehow appropriate that the very last story I filed for this program was from Kolkata last week, about the legacy of Mother Teresa. It was from this city -- and on the same subject -- that I did my very first story for Religion & Ethics newsweekly. In nearly two decades, in hundreds of reports, grey -- like my own scalp -- became a dominant color. Few issues can be seen in absolutely black and white terms. They are fraught with complexity and often unforeseen consequences. Take surrogate motherhood -- a billion dollar industry in India in which poor women were hired to carry the fetuses of foreign biological parents.

He concludes:

It’s been a million mile journey, literally making the foreign less foreign. I could not have dreamed it would take me to Kalamazoo and Timbuktu. You saw it here.

It's easy to understand why they're all feeling quite nostalgic. Very few -- if any -- religion reporters had the travel budgets they got. One of the up sides of video is that you can't do reporting by phone!

I wrote not long ago about some of the reasons for R&EN’s demise, so I won’t repeat all that here, except to say that money from the Lilly Endowment steadily went down in recent years.

But Lilly is not out of the religion news business, I learned recently. It’s funding an “ethics and religion desk” on the website that appears to be mainly essays on religion and ethics submitted by academics. It’s not near as vibrant as actual news coverage and I’m guessing the show is getting a lot less than the $5 million+ that Religion & Ethics Newsweekly needed each year. But it is a mystery why Lilly robbed Peter to pay Paul, so to speak. But as tmatt keeps saying, "Opinion is cheap, news is expensive."

Twenty years is not a bad run in TV land. I just wish that something else was out there to replace it. Like maybe a cable news company or two? Even a old-school broadcast network?

Sadly, TV execs seem no more convinced today than they were two decades ago that broadcast religion news interests a lot of people. As the late AP religion writer George Cornell used to write, religion makes more money and involves more people than sports.

Anyone listening out there at Fox, CBS, NBC, CNN or ABC?

Categories: Main

Thinking about two newsy people: Atlantic listens to Tucker Carlson and also David Gelernter

Sunday, February 26, 2017

It isn't hard news, but sometimes the best thing journalists can do with really interesting people is sit down and talk to them -- with a recorder turned on.

The Atlantic has two interesting Q&A features up right now offering chats with men representing two very different brands, or styles of conservatism.

The first interview is a familiar byline for those who follow Beltway journalism -- Tucker Carlson of The Daily Caller (where I knew him as an editor who welcomed news-writing interns from the Washington Journalism Center program that I led for a decade). Of course, now he is best known as the guy lighting up the Fox News ratings in the prime evening talk-show slot formerly occupied by Megyn Kelly.

The second interview is with the noted Internet-era theorist David Gelernter, a Yale University computer science professor who is also known for his writings (often in The Weekly Standard) on art, history, politics, culture, education, journalism, Judaism and lots of other things. Many readers will recall that he survived an attack by the Unabomber. I would think that, for GetReligion readers, his book "Drawing Life: Surviving the Unabomber" would be of special interest, because of its blend of commentary on journalism, faith and public life.

Why point GetReligion readers to these two think pieces? The Carlson piece is interesting because of what is NOT in it. The Gelernter interview (and an amazing 20-point attached memo written by Gelernter) is must reading because of what IS in it.

Here is the passage in the Carlson piece -- focusing on his personal worldview and its roots -- that is creating some buzz:

To the extent that Carlson’s on-air commentary these days is guided by any kind of animating idea, it is perhaps best summarized as a staunch aversion to whatever his right-minded neighbors believe. The country has reached a point, he tells me, where the elite consensus on any given issue should be “reflexively distrusted.”“Look, it’s really simple,” Carlson says. “The SAT 50 years ago pulled a lot of smart people out of every little town in America and funneled them into a small number of elite institutions, where they married each other, had kids, and moved to an even smaller number of elite neighborhoods. We created the most effective meritocracy ever.”“But the problem with the meritocracy,” he continues, is that it “leeches all the empathy out of your society … The second you think that all your good fortune is a product of your virtue, you become highly judgmental, lacking empathy, totally without self-awareness, arrogant, stupid -- I mean all the stuff that our ruling class is.”Carlson recounts, with some amusement, how he saw these attitudes surface in his neighbors’ response to Trump’s victory. He recalls receiving a text message on election night from a stunned Democratic friend declaring his intention to flee the country with his family. Carlson replied by asking if he could use their pool while they were gone.

Wait for it.

“I mean people were, like, traumatized,” he says. And yet, in the months since then, “no one I know has learned anything. There’s been no moment of reflection … It’s just, ‘This is what happens when you let dumb people vote.’” Carlson finds this brand of snobbery particularly offensive: “Intelligence is not a moral category. That’s what I find a lot of people in my life assume. It’s not. God doesn’t care how smart you are, actually.”

This is a rather God-haunted article, in part because Carlson is talking about rejecting the dominant worldview of DC insiders and the press that covers them. That's the whole thrust of the article. Is Beltway-land known as a rather secular environment or what?

Meanwhile, might his own values and beliefs have something to do with religion? Carlson has been interested in faith issues in the past, but the Atlantic interviewer never spots the ghost.

But the Godtalk returns -- sort of -- in a discussion of Carlson's infamous interview with liberal writer Lauren Duca of Teen Vogue. In this case, Carlson is reacting to a holier than thou stance that he believes exists among the liberal DC elites. Once again, what is the basic worldview of DC and its elites?

When asked about what caused his blunt clash with Duca, he responds:

Finally, he answers, “It was the unreasonableness … It’s this assumption -- and it’s held by a lot of people I live around -- that you’re on God’s side, everyone else is an infidel, and by calling them names you’re doing the Lord’s work. I just don’t think that’s admirable, and I’m not impressed by that.”

Read it all.

Meanwhile, the much longer Conor Friedersdorf interview with Gelernter goes all over the place and is very hard to describe with a few snips of text. But first things first: Why is the Yale professor in the news at the moment?

Last month, David Gelernter, the pioneering Yale University computer scientist, met with Donald Trump to discuss the possibility of joining the White House staff. An article about the meeting in The Washington Post was headlined, “David Gelernter, fiercely anti-intellectual computer scientist, is being eyed for Trump’s science adviser.”It is hard to imagine a more misleading treatment.By one common definition, anti-intellectualism is “hostility towards and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectual pursuits, usually expressed as the derision of education, philosophy, literature, art, and science, as impractical and contemptible.”

It's pretty clear that, in this case, "anti-intellectual" actually means that Gelernter has been critical of the establishment that currently dominates higher education. Apples. Oranges.

But let's look at one long passage in which the faith-and-values question is openly addressed. If this interests you, then you'll need to read the whole feature.

Friedersdorf: If our domestic policy were informed by a similar lodestar -- to stand up for what is basically good, to oppose what is basically evil, and to have the wisdom to know the difference (and when neither good nor evil are implicated), how should we approach the most controversial intersections of science and policy?I am thinking of questions like how much today's humans owe to future generations; if or when it is permissible to do research on stem cells from human embryos or to edit the human genome; what restrictions, if any, there ought to be on abortion or euthanasia; whether factory farms, or zoos, are wrong, etc. I don't mean to imply that these matters are all alike, or the most pertinent, but how you might guide policymakers who approach you in the course of trying to figure out what's best.Gelernter: Frankly, I think that guiding citizens (insofar as I'm able to guide anyone) is far more important than advising policymakers. I've published a series of pieces over the years on this sort of question in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (they translate them), which have led in turn to contributions to German anthologies on these topics, occasional lectures in Germany, etc. I've never found a place to publish such things in English, not for a handful of academics but for the educated public.  That being said, I'm not quite sure I understand the question.Does it ask how I'd make a decision, or what decisions I've actually made? I make my own decisions from inside the modern-orthodox Jewish world; I try to read relevant Talmudic and halakhic and responsa literature. The rabbis, my rabbis, are my moral guides. But it's often the case that they haven't dealt quite with the right question, or I disagree (Jewish theology is a literature of constant disagreement; nor of course do I present my views as any sort of rabbinic position—considered becoming a rabbi long & hard, but didn't). In any case, I then turn on my brain and do my best to figure out the question. I'm too old to foist off the final responsibility on anyone but myself. So that's how I make these decisions. (There are philosophers who influence me, but as authors more than arbiters. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein have always enchanted me, more for the way they embrace art than for their doctrines. Wittgenstein would sit in the nave of Ely, not far from Cambridge, and admire it. Something I love to do, though he had a lot more opportunity.)As to my answers, I've written & argued in Germany that (for example) computers & social nets ought to be treated like bars or strip joints: not acceptable for children. (At least we ought to consider treating them that way.) I don't like the idea of legal restrictions. But I might urge that we get computers out of schools until our children are able to read & write half decently -- at least as decently as they used to during the middle two-thirds of the 20th Century.These are local decisions.  But a science advisor's most important role is facing the public, not the president. A science advisor has to convince Americans that they're out of their minds to turn their backs on science. It is foolish, dangerous, and a waste of a beautiful opportunity.AI presents tremendously serious moral problems which we leave to Kurzweil and friends. But in practical terms, there's no way on earth I could get a piece from a very different viewpoint before a mass audience.The ideological narrowness of mainstream commercial magazines is one of the deep, deep frustrations of my life.  We have a thriving conservative intelligentsia in this country; it includes many (in fact most) of the smartest people I've ever met. (Think about Norman Podhoretz, George Will, Bill Bennett, Donald Kagan -- radically different sorts of thinker, all four strikingly brilliant. There are a few dozen more even at this exalted level.) It's a pleasure and a high honor to be part of America's conservative culture. But the Left hears nothing we say: nothing. Nothing. Most have shrugged this off; only a few of us care. Because I teach at Yale and, more important, because I belong to the art world & have since birth, I can't help caring -- and sometimes being outraged, sometimes just grief-stricken. What a damned mess we've made of intellectual life in this absurdly wealthy, lucky, blessed nation.

As if the interview is not enough, this package also includes -- as I mentioned earlier -- a 20-point document from Gelernter that is must reading. It touches on all kinds of things, ranging from America's toxic public culture to the crucial role that beauty plays in a good life.

Dig in.

Categories: Main

Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

Saturday, February 25, 2017

From the invaluable Merriam-Webster dictionary:  

Tickler  noun1: a person or device that tickles. 2: a device for jogging the memory; specifically: a file that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention.

Most scribes employ No. 2 to some extent, whether with old-style manila folders or in electronic form. Attention to the calendar paid off with a Feb. 19 feature by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s well-respected Peter Smith on the 50th anniversary of the local “Duquesne Weekend,” which inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic movement.

Further examples: 

Political reporters’ datebooks will mark the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps the July 20 half-year point, as useful points to assess the new administration. Another peg comes June 14 when history’s oldest president turns 71 (while refusing to provide full medical data, as with his tax returns).

Religion beat specialists could use those same calendar pegs to examine  pro and con reactions to how the new president is handling questions of keen religious interest, overtures to this or that religious faction, or whether he ever attends church services, if so where, and if not why. Or this: Is the liberal Christian Century correct that Trump has obliterated the “civil religion” preached by prior presidents?

Speaking of presidents, ticklers will list the National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February. The 2017 version roused great expectations after a religiously and morally bizarre campaign, and President Trump’s first outing did not disappoint. He recalled childhood “in a churched home,” suggested prayer might help Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve his own “tremendous success” on TV, and remarked “the hell with it” during a fond mention of the Senate chaplain.  

From past breakfasts, who can forget Ben Carson’s anti-Obama sermonette that launched a presidential run? Or past testimonies from Mother Teresa, former Prime Minister Tony Blair, U2 singer Bono and scientific superstar Francis Collins?  

Reporters should once again examine the event's controversial and secretive (or devoted-to-confidentiality) sponsor, the Fellowship Foundation. Reason: The group's veteran leader,  influential behind-scenes D.C. networker Doug Coe, died February 21 at age 88. So what will be the makeup of leadership in the post-Coe era?

Back to ticklers, in February 2018 how about a serious look at  those caucuses of evangelical bigwigs in and around the main event?

A related tickler moment comes with the March 28 death date of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who appeared at the very first prayer breakfast in 1953, launching an unbroken presidential tradition. Or there’s his birth date on Oct. 14. Like the far different Trump, Ike never held elective office before winning the presidency. 

A periodic C-Span survey, issued last week, shows 91 historians now rank Ike No. 5 among the nation’s best presidents, his best showing yet (behind only Lincoln, Washington and the two Roosevelts). Ike-versus-Donald comparisons are also in the media mix thanks to Fox News anchor Bret Baier’s new best-seller “Three Days in January: Dwight Eisenhower’s Final Mission.”

Regarding religion, Baier sketches the essentials of Ike’s upbringing (he was named for  primo evangelist Dwight L. Moody), and the story behind that first prayer breakfast. Other landmarks in the “piety on the Potomac” 1950s were adding “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, making “In God We Trust”  the national motto and Ike’s pick for chief justice, Earl Warren, leading a D.C. prayer rally on behalf of Moody’s evangelistic successor Billy Graham.

Like many military officers, Eisenhower was a spiritual vagabond who held no church membership when he entered the White House.  He joined D.C.’s National Presbyterian Church through a baptism conducted by Pastor Edward Elson, later Senate chaplain. Baier recounts that the sacrament was supposed to be private and when Elson issued a press release Ike “was so peeved he threatened to choose another church.”

Diane Winston of the University of Southern California filed a good prayer breakfast backgrounder that noted Eisenhower was reluctant to attend the first one and was coaxed into it by Graham, who also brokered the president’s baptism and Presbyterian affiliation. Thus another tickler date comes next Nov. 7, the 99th birthday of the world’s most famous Protestant, a player in many such spiritual interactions.    

Sources on all the above: (1) Gordon College’s scholarly President D. Michael Lindsay, author of “Faith in the Halls of Power: How Evangelicals Joined the American Elite.” (2) Historian Grant Wacker, author of  “America’s Pastor: Billy Graham and the Shaping of a Nation.” (3) Sociologist William Martin, author of “Prophet With Honor: The Billy Graham Story.”

Categories: Main

Are Trump advisor Gorka's views on Islam too extreme? Some media want to know

Saturday, February 25, 2017

More than a decade ago, a new editor came to work alongside me on the Washington Times’ national desk. His Catholic roots were in Croatia and it wasn’t long before I learned a lot about the ills that Catholic Croats had suffered under various overlords, the latest being the Communists. The Croats were also under four centuries of the Ottoman (and Muslim) Empire; a situation that my friend never forgot.

Having one’s homeland occupied is something most Americans cannot imagine, much less having to endure it for centuries. My friend was passionate about the politics in his ancestral country to a degree that I rarely saw among other friends who had immigrated to the U.S.  

The person in this Washington Post profile is similar to my friend at work: a son of Hungarian Catholics who had suffered for their faith and whose view of the world was shaped by how southern Europe was conquered first by Muslims and then by Communists. These days he's taken on another cause: That of explaining to the world that religious ideology is at the center of the jihadist threat.

To those of us who write about religion, this sounds pretty obvious. I mean: What else motivates the radical Islamist other than -- Islam? But this view is not universally accepted in our government. Read on: 

On the night of President Trump’s inauguration, Sebastian Gorka attended the celebratory balls in a high-necked, black Hungarian jacket. Pinned on his chest was a Hungarian coat of arms, a tribute to his father who had been tortured by the communists, and a civilian commendation from the U.S. military.For years, Gorka had labored on the fringes of Washington and the far edge of acceptable debate as defined by the city’s Republican and Democratic foreign policy elite. Today, the former national security editor for the conservative Breitbart News outlet occupies a senior job in the White House and his controversial ideas — especially about Islam — drive Trump’s populist approach to counterterrorism and national security.

The article then explains Gorka’s conviction that Islam is irreparably radical and that jihad for world domination is at the heart of Islamic thought, teachings and scriptures.

For him, the terror threat is rooted in Islam and “martial” parts of the Koran that he says predispose some Muslims to acts of terror.“Anybody who downplays the role of religious ideology . . . they are deleting reality to fit their own world,” he said.Gorka is a deputy assistant to the president. He reports to Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, and is a member of his Strategic Initiatives Group. Bannon has spoken in similarly apocalyptic terms of a “new barbarity” that threatens the Christian West.

The article then put forth quotes by academics as to how mistaken Gorka is but that Trump’s victory has rendered their opinions moot.

Gorka’s ideas about radical Islam began with his father’s fight against the communists in his native Hungary and his deep Catholic faith.The elder Gorka and a small group of Christian students in Budapest were sending secret, coded messages to London when he was captured by the communist regime, tortured and given a life sentence. In 1956, he escaped and fled to the United Kingdom, where Gorka was born and raised…

The younger Gorka realized, the article continued that Islam, facism and Communism are all totalitarian philosophies bent on world rule.

His other insight, he said, was that the Washington foreign policy elite was too quick to discount the role of religion.“Their worldview is fundamentally challenged by anybody who takes religion seriously, and you know what? I take religion seriously,” Gorka said. “Because when you take seven minutes on a video to decapitate another human being by manually sawing off their head, that’s the power that religion can have or a distortion of religion or whatever you want to call it. . . . My father was tortured — tortured for weeks — by the communist secret police in Hungary. I didn’t start decapitating people when I found out what happened to my father.”

The article then emphasizes Gorka’s ignorance of Arabic, his layman’s understanding of Islamic teaching and his sparse academic credentials in general. But it does credit Gorka with taking a pragmatic view of Islam that is closer to present-day realities than was former President George W. Bush when he stated that “Islam is peace” after Sept. 11.

Gorka’s former supervisors pushed him to incorporate other perspectives on Islam and publish in peer-reviewed journals where his ideas would be challenged and perhaps tempered, Bell said.But Gorka insisted that he wasn’t interested in that kind of scholarship.“What I care about is if somebody in the field is reading my article,” he said. “I see myself as somebody who supports the bravest of the brave — the warfighter. Publish or be damned? I’ll be damned, thank you very much.”

He’s got a point. No one in academia warned about a terror attack before September 11; a point brought up in Martin Kramer’s book “Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.” It’s clear that not only are members of the Trump Administration brushing aside concerns voiced by media; they’re also not listening to what academics are saying and Gorka is a prime example.

The article did a great job in the first part of explaining that Gorka gets his passion against Islamic terrorism from being a Catholic, but it never takes us anywhere with this information. There’s no explanation showing how Catholicism has informed Gorka in contrast to, say, Protestantism or Orthodoxy.

What it does do is explain one man’s impatience with the system and his inner sense that all the position papers in the world aren’t dealing with the threat at the heart of Islam and its theology. Instead, journalists are fixated with Gorka's weird treatment of his critics. He just got written up by Newsweek for calling a terrorism expert (who had criticized Gorka on Twitter) and threatening the expert with a lawsuit. Listen to the tape recording of Gorka's conversation with Michael Smith. 

Although I think the Post piece was quite fair with Gorka, I wish it had probed further. For instance, what parish does this man attend in Washington? Those of us who’ve covered the Archdiocese of Washington know there are certain parishes that stand for certain things and that you can tell a lot about a politician by which church he or she attends. What does the Catholic community think about this man?

Also, how radical is Gorka's thesis, really? Remember that March 2015 Atlantic magazine article "What ISIS Really Wants" that got everyone's attention because it pointed to the inherent nature of Islamic teaching as ISIS' base? Gorka is saying much the same thing. Why is he getting criticized while the magazine was praised for getting to the heart of the issue? 

The Wall Street Journal's recent profile of Gorka brings up many of the same points, stressing that Gorka is being a realist in ways that academics and the Obama administration were not in terms of Islam's true nature. I'm fascinated with one man's effort to bring theology to bear on foreign policy. I'll be interested to see how far he gets with it. 

Categories: Main

Wall Street Journal resists news media entropy, finds faith in the 'Sooner State'

Friday, February 24, 2017

Editor's note: Another GetReligion byline from the past has returned to active duty. The Rev. George Conger will once again be writing essays on global media -- with an emphasis on England and Europe -- that will appear on the homepage for The Media Project and here at GetReligion. While serving as an Episcopal priest, he has a long history of journalism and commentary in mainstream and religious publications on both sides of the Atlantic.

-- tmatt


Almost three years have passed since I took pen to paper in aid of the work of The Media Project and GetReligion. I welcome the opportunity to return to the team of writers led by tmatt who cover the coverage of religion reporting in the secular press. 

Much has changed in my life these past few years. I have left the Church of England Newspaper after 18 years and have been engaged in the parish ministry in rural Florida as rector of Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Lecanto. I’ve gone up a notch in the church world and now can claim the right to wear purple buttons on my cassock following my election as dean of Northwest Central Florida. I remain active with two online media ventures, Anglican.Ink and Anglican Unscripted. 

The media world has not stood still either. The decline in professional standards -- clarity of language, honesty in reporting, balance and integrity in sourcing -- continues. From my perspective, it would appear that we in the media are all doomed.
Rudolf Clausius’ 1865 maxim: "The energy of the universe is constant; the entropy of the universe tends to a maximum" -- from which he formulated the second law of thermodynamics -- is true for journalism as well as physics. In terms of journalism basics, a race to the bottom is underway.  

We are now at a point where The Sun, a British redtop or tabloid, is a better source for religion reporting than The Independent (one of Britain’s national papers). Compare these reports on a Catholic abuse scandal in Italy published earlier this month.

The Sun’s story is entitled: “ROMPING IN THE PEWS: Randy Italian priest ‘with 30 lovers’ faces the sack for ‘organising wild S&M orgies on church property’.” The Independent’s piece has the less colorful headline: “Italian priest faces defrocking for ‘organising orgies on church property’.”

Naughty vicar stories are a staple of the British press.


Though the influence of religion may have receded in the lives of many Europeans, they still enjoy a good story about sex, hypocrisy and the clergy. Both articles give details of the misconduct of Father Don Andrea Contin. (With that name like that, I was surprised not to see allusions to "incontinence." That might say more about me, but I digress.)

Both report the police raided Contin’s home, and noted the Bishop of Padua was awaiting the results of their criminal investigation, saying he will act once the law has run its course. 

Yet only the Sun tells us why the law is at issue.

Why are the police involved? Are the police called out in Padua every time there is an orgy, or just clerical orgies? I must say the Italians do things with style. When we Episcopal priests gather for a wild time, it means wearing Bermuda shorts on the golf course. 

The Independent story works on a premise that sexual misconduct by clergy (not involving children) is subject to criminal investigation. While the Catholic Church does have its own “church police,” e.g., the Swiss Guard, they were not called out to investigate. It is left to the Sun to state the police became involved after allegations of “pimping” (criminal pandering and procurement) were leveled against the vicar.

All of which led me to think of Tom Stoppard’s play, "Arcadia." Set in a country house in Derbyshire, it moves between 1809 and the present day, juxtaposing the lives of modern to past residents. 

In 1809, Thomasina Coverly, the daughter of the house, is presented as a precocious teenager with ideas about mathematics, nature and physics well ahead of her time. Her character is based upon the historical figure Lady Caroline Lamb (who coined the phrase ‘bad, mad and dangerous to know’ about Lord Byron). Thomasina studies with her tutor Septimus Hodge, a friend of Lord Byron, who is an unseen guest in the house. 

In the present, writer Hannah Jarvis and literature professor Bernard Nightingale converge on the house: she to investigate a hermit who once lived on the grounds, and he to research a mysterious chapter in the life of Byron. As their studies unfold with the help of Valentine Coverly, a post-graduate student in mathematical biology, the truth about what happened in Thomasina's time is revealed -- with Thomasina formulating the laws of entropy -- the second law of thermodynamics. 

Stoppard’s play argues that in some sense, we have always known about these physical laws of inevitable decay and decline. Writing (in real life) in exile in Switzerland in 1816, Lord Byron speaks to their implications in his poem, Darkness. It begins:


Continue reading "Wall Street Journal resists news media entropy, finds faith in the 'Sooner State'," by George Conger, at the homepage of The Media Project.

PHOTOS: The Clear Creek Abbey in Hulbert, Okla.

Categories: Main
The Media Project
Customize This