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Rising force in American politics? Define the 'religious left' and give three examples

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Since the very first days of this weblog, your GetReligionistas have been asking for mainstream journalists to pay more attention to the religious left.

If there is a Religious Right, which almost always receives big "RR" treatment, then it would be logical to think that there is a religious left. I have long argued that, without the beginning of the sharp statistical decline of the old religious left in the 1970s and '80s, you would not have had a large gap in the public square into which the Religious Right could move.

The key questions: "What is the religious left? Does one define this term using doctrinal standards, political standards or both? Is there more to this than the Democratic Party at prayer?"

Every now and then, mainstream reporters write a round of features about the return of the religious left. The rise of Barack Obama inspired one recent set of these stories. Now, Reuters has released a feature that, in Newsweek, drew this headline: "How the 'religious left' is emerging as a political force in Trump's America."

So what is the "religious left"? It is, readers are told, primarily "progressive" Catholics and Protestants. OK, so what are the key issues here?

Although not as powerful as the religious right, which has been credited with helping elect Republican presidents and boasts well-known leaders such as Christian Broadcasting Network founder Pat Robertson, the "religious left" is now slowly coming together as a force in U.S. politics.This disparate group, traditionally seen as lacking clout, has been propelled into political activism by Trump's policies on immigration, healthcare and social welfare, according to clergy members, activists and academics. A key test will be how well it will be able to translate its mobilization into votes in the 2018 midterm congressional elections."It's one of the dirty little secrets of American politics that there has been a religious left all along and it just hasn't done a good job of organizing," said J. Patrick Hornbeck II, chairman of the theology department at Fordham University, a Jesuit school in New York.

What about the history of this wing of American religion?

Religious progressive activism has been part of American history. Religious leaders and their followers played key roles in campaigns to abolish slavery, promote civil rights and end the Vietnam War, among others. The latest upwelling of left-leaning religious activism has accompanied the dawn of the Trump presidency.Some in the religious left are inspired by Pope Francis, the Roman Catholic leader who has been an outspoken critic of anti-immigrant policies and a champion of helping the needy.

So here is my main question: Are the U.S. Catholic bishops on the right or the left? What religious groups are part of the religious left? Also, what is the unique doctrinal stance that separates the left from the right?

The problem, of course, is that it's easy -- if you use doctrinal standards -- to find conservative Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Pentecostals, etc., who would take "liberal" stances on most of the issues mentioned by Reuters.

The doctrines that Pope Francis references when he speaks out on immigration and race -- that all human life is sacred and worthy of dignity, from conception to natural death -- are the doctrines he quotes when he speaks out against abortion. So is that "left" or "right"? Hey reporters, can you name a group in American life that has been cheering for health-care reform longer than the U.S. Catholic bishops? And what about this puzzle: Cheering for religious liberty used to be a "liberal" thing. Now it's, for the most part, a "conservative" thing.

The Reuters report places a strong emphasis on the sanctuary movement, as a defining issue for the religious left. That's appropriate, I think, in most cases.

But what were (and are) the essential issues that divided the old religious left -- by which I mean liberal Catholics and Jews, along with the leaders of the oldline Protestant denominations -- from conservatives? Once you passed the conflict in Vietnam, one would have to focus on Roe v. Wade and, eventually, gay rights.

The key: These divisions were doctrinal, as well as political.

In the Reuters report -- which is stunningly free of specific facts about numbers and specific religious movements -- pays next to zero attention to Sexual Revolution issues, even though these debates are at the heart (to name one example) of liberal identity in studies by the Pew Forum and others.

Toward the end there is this:

"This is not about partisanship, but about vulnerable populations who need protection, whether it's the LGBT community, the refugee community, the undocumented community," said Rabbi Jonah Pesner, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, using the acronym for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender.More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the center's annual Washington meeting on political activism, about three times as many as normal, Pesner said.

Another crucial question: Is the current religious left surge -- if there are national statistics to back the existence of this trend -- simply part of the anti-Trump world? If so, how many oldline Protestants in pews, as opposed to pulpits, opposed Trump on election day?

I was especially disappointed that this story didn't focus on what many observers -- left and right -- have hailed as a major development on the liberal side of American life. I am referring to growth of the "Nones," the religiously unaffiliated, and their role in a growing coalition of old religious liberals, along with atheists and agnostics.

That's a trend that combines the secular left and the old religious left.

Remember this material from an earlier post, drawing on 2008 statements by scholar John C. Green?

On the right side of the American religious marketplace, defined in terms of doctrine and practice, is a camp of roughly 20 percent (maybe less) of believers who are seriously trying to practice their chosen faith at the level of daily life, said Green. Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is a growing camp of people who are atheists, agnostics or vaguely spiritual believers who define their beliefs primarily in terms of the old doctrines that they no longer believe. This is especially true when it comes to issues of salvation and sex. As the old saying goes, on these issues these spiritual-but-not-religious believers reject all absolute truths except the statement that there are no absolute truths.In recent national elections this growing camp of secularists and religiously unaffiliated people have formed a powerful coalition with Catholic liberals, liberal Jews and the declining numbers of people found in America's liberal religious denominations (such as the "seven sisters" of oldline Protestantism). Add it all up ... and you had a growing camp of roughly 20 percent or so on the cultural left.The bottom line: This coalition was emerging as the dominant voice in the modern Democratic Party on matters of culture and religion. Just as Republicans have, in recent decades, had to wrestle with the reality -- the pluses and the minuses -- of the energy found on the Religious Right, leaders in the Democratic Party will now be faced with the delicate task of pleasing the Religious Left and its secular allies.

So, in terms of doctrine and anti-doctrine, who is showing up at these new rallies for the religious left? Do we need a more accurate label for this camp, a label that is more inclusive of the left's diverse religious and non-religious points of view?

Journalists should chase that story and see where it goes. Reuters gave us an interesting, but very thin and simplistic, look at one piece of that larger pie.

Categories: Main

After London, a question returns: At what point does terrorist coverage just encourage more attacks?

Thursday, March 30, 2017

I listen to National Public Radio when I'm in my car and either of the network's two signature news programs -- "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" -- happen to be airing. That was the case one day last week when I heard a guest on ATC being interviewed about the London terrorist attack and the radicalization of homegrown Islamic terrorists.

One factor contributing to this radicalization, he said, is the saturation coverage the attacks tend to receive.

In essence, the question he posed was: Do news media inadvertently advance the terrorists' game plan by inappropriately publicizing their attacks, leading to heightened fears in the general public -- one of terrorism's clearest objectives.

It's a knotty and important question that seems to surface after every successful attack in a Western city.

Most often, the question is raised by someone put forth as an expert on terrorism attached to some think tank or university. By now, I'd wager there isn't a Western news room or journalism school that hasn't wrestled with the question.

I'd also bet that few if any of these discussions ended in general agreement on some practical way forward that's applicable to all attacks under all circumstances.

I know I lack a one-size-fits-all standard -- which doesn't mean that someone else has not come up with some broadly general standard for coverage. If any reader happens to be that person, please say so in the comment section below.

Here's the relevant part of the ATC interview I heard last week. The interviewer is NPR's Kelly McEvers and the interviewee is Rajan Basra, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at London's King's College.

BASRA: ... But aside from trying to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place, we also have to accept that terrorism is just a fact of life in the West these days. And so perhaps it's better to make society more resilient to the effects of terrorism.MCEVERS: What do you mean?BASRA: In the sense that terrorism aims to terrorize people. So if these attacks just don't gather that much attention or don't cause so much panic as they would otherwise do, this kind of defeats the whole purpose of this attacker engaging in that act.MCEVERS: So don't cover them in the news.BASRA: It's not necessarily about not covering them in the news, but I think much of the coverage is alarmist, and I think these attacks should actually reinforce the identities and values that we hold so that we can not only just survive these attacks, but after the fact, we can rediscover what it is that this society stands for.

I wish Basra had been asked to further clarify his thinking. Or maybe he was and his response was cut from the interview as it was broadcast or posted on the NPR website.

Either way, the section of the interview quoted above is all we have, so let's take a closer look at Basra's brief comment about how alarming much of the coverage can be. I think he's undoubtedly correct that much of the coverage is alarmist, and that it can add to the process of radicalization.

Watch how cable news, whether it's Fox or CNN, the two leaders in the field, breathlessly cover an attack and it soon becomes obvious.

For news media, An individual outlet's leanings tend not to matter as much as grabbing and holding on to as many eyeballs as possible. Of course the web -- with its ever-growing number of news and quasi-news sites blasting out instantaneous headlines that often prove misleading -- further complicates the situation.

In short, the ultra-competitive 24/7 media climate makes it virtually impossible to heed warnings about alarmist reporting, no matter how accurate they may be.

At the same time, however, it's also important to public safety that news about an ongoing attack -- no matter how sketchy the information may be -- is disseminated quickly about areas to be avoided, and such. Suppressing negative news just does not fly in democracies.

In short, it's ridiculous to even contemplate withholding news of an attack against the public, when at least some members of the public have already been impacted and are sure to spread the word, at a minimum, on social media. Nor can we count on politicians -- whose self-interested reactions to attacks as often as not tend to further alarm the public -- to help the situation.

Basra's NPR interview was hardly alone in bringing up the coverage debate.

A quick Google search found the issue also being discussed in this piece posted by NBC, and this one from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, among others. Even the less than authoritative but popular (in the United Kingdom, at least) UNILAD news web site is taking this on.

Perhaps the true value of the UNILAD post is to remind us that it's even possible to exploit a terrorist attack by writing critically about how the media tends to exploit terrorist attacks.

I've spoken here about attacks by Islamists. However, to be sure, the same issues arise no matter what cultural, religious or political faction a perpetrator claims to represent. For better or worse, it's simply how journalism functions.

GetReligion readers: Again, if any of you have thought this situation through to a different conclusion than I have, please say your piece in the comments section below. Because this is not an issue that will soon fade and it deserves continued consideration.

Categories: Main

Shhhhh! Don't mention Christian faith because ESPN wants to pretend it doesn't matter

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I love an inspiring story as much as the next guy.

What I don't love so much: a generic inspiring story that trips all over itself ignoring the obvious religion angle.

Yes, I'm talking about you, ESPN.

Holy ghosts seem to afflict the global sports giant quite frequently — so much so that I sometimes wonder if the network has a policy (official or unofficial) against mentioning potentially offensive words.

You know, words like faith, Jesus and Christian. 

The latest ESPN example comes to us courtesy of GetReligion reader David Yoder: @tweetmattingly Do you suppose a religion ghost lurks here?

— David Yoder (@DavidYoder13) March 28, 2017

The story concerns a group of NC State football players using their spring work to do mission work in Kenya:

NC State punter A.J. Cole III started going to Kenya over spring break as a senior in high school. Once he got to college, he needed his best sales pitch to convince teammates to come along with him.So he called a meeting on campus and promised those interested that they would embark on a life-changing experience. It would not be an easy one. For starters, they would each have to raise $3,000 to fund the trip. They would have to make sure they had a full range of up-to-date shots (not to mention a passport and other travel documents).They would have to take two seven-hour airplane rides to Nairobi. Then they would have to board a Jeep-style safari truck and head four hours northwest to Nakuru. Once there, they would be staying in bunk beds on the campus of Mountain Park Academy, a boarding school for Kenyan children. Modern amenities would be in scarce supply.They would spend five days with the teachers and children, doing mission work while also uplifting, encouraging and teaching the children either in the classroom or through sports. Cole got three teammates to join him last spring.

The term "mission work" is the first clue — at least to me — that there might be a religious component to this trip. But ESPN avoids any mention of religion.

Check out the Mountain Park Academy's website, and the Kenyan school's faith-based mission — including a call "to provide basic education in a Christian environment for those children" — is made clear.

Go to Cole's Twitter page, and his profile refers to Luke 10:19 of the New Testament:

19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you.

Scroll down the player's recent tweets, and he leaves no doubt as to the Christian nature of his mission work in Kenya:

Blessed by the relationships I have with these Godly men. Serving Jesus in Kenya with these people right here has created a bond for life!

— AJ Cole III (@AJCole90) March 13, 2017

One more bit of evidence: Reader Yoder found the above video, which notes that Cole's 2015 trip was with a Fellowship of Christian Athletes group:

@tweetmattingly Little more research: it was a trip with FCA. There is a ghost.

— David Yoder (@DavidYoder13) March 29, 2017

Talk about a haunted piece of journalism.

Please don't misunderstand me: I think it's great that ESPN decided to report on a "life-changing experience" that made a "profound impact" and "inspired (one of Cole's teammates) so much."

I just wish ESPN would go ahead and tell the rest of the story — the one that involves those unmentioned words above.

Seriously, why is ESPN — seemingly — so afraid of religion?

Categories: Main

Washington Post: Why one young man became a priest, for vaguely religious reasons

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

We live in an age in which a young Catholic man choosing the priesthood is news, the kind of news that produces a feature story in the trendy Style section of an elite newspaper like The Washington Post.

The headline gives you a clue about the content, as in, "This Life: He never imagined being a priest. But then he felt the call -- and it terrified him."

Now, I have read my share of these secular-press features over the past couple of decades. Most of them feel like features about men who decide to go into social work, only with a few artistic flourishes about the liturgy, vestments, etc. The priesthood is all about helping people wrestle with daily life.

You almost always have -- if the seminarian is straight -- the obligatory reference to a previous girlfriend or even fiance, while leads to a discussion of celibacy. If the future priest is gay, then the sexuality angle is probably the reason the story is being written in the first place.

Like I said, these kinds of stories are rather consistent.

However, I have my own little journalism test that I perform when I start reading one of these stories online. The first thing I do is pop open a search box, enter one rather symbolic word, and look through the whole article to see what I see.

The word I search for is "Jesus." You would be amazed how often mainstream news organizations publish stories about men entering the priesthood without mentioning this word, other than, perhaps, in the names of religious orders and/or institutions. Jesus does appear in this particular Post report, but it's a close call. We will hunt for that. But, first, here is the overture, which jumps straight to the celibacy angle:

In the city around him, Anthony Ferguson’s fellow millennials were just waking up, shaking off hangovers, checking messages on dating apps and getting ready to make their way in the world.But Ferguson was already out the door on this Friday morning -- wearing the same black shirt and white collar he always wears -- sitting in a chapel under the warm light streaming through stained-glass windows. Before 8 a.m., he’d listened to a sermon on the blessings of marriage, about how it allows spouses to love one another the way God loves each of them.It’s an experience, Ferguson knows, that will remain theoretical, should he continue on his current path: toward priesthood.

The biographical details come quickly, describing this 28-year-old. He used to be a cartoonist who wanted to be an artist. He was introverted and, in college, he considered himself an atheist. There is the usual reference to a girlfriend.

However, at the heart of this story, there is information about "religion" and how "religion" has shaped Ferguson's life in various ways. Evangelical Protestantism plays a surprisingly important role.

Religion has always been a backdrop of Ferguson’s life. When he was a child, his family went to Mass on Sundays and prayed when a family member was sick. But his father had been raised in the Protestant tradition, so the emphasis was on the shared fundamentals of Christianity rather than the particularities of Catholicism. Besides, the stories in the Bible didn’t interest him nearly as much as the characters in “The Lord of the Rings” or the creatures crawling out of his imagination and onto the pages of his sketchbooks.But when the veracity of his faith was challenged, it shook him. Attending the University of Richmond on an art scholarship, he took a few world religion courses that offered alternate perspectives on God, including the possibility that there is no God.

That led to atheism. But his yearning to believe led somewhere else.

That desire drew him to a campus Bible study group. Led by evangelicals, the sessions offered a much more intimate view of Christianity than the distant-seeming Catholicism of his childhood.“That’s what I started to see in this Bible study,” he says. “That if I’m gonna follow this Jesus guy, it’s gonna have to change pretty much everything.”And it did.

This is the story's one reference to this Jesus person. In this same context, Ferguson begins talking about his immersion in the writings -- "meditations" is the word used by the Post -- of C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. This leads to a very, very important word.

“There was a deepening of the conversion -- kind of an opening of my eyes that, ‘Yeah, this is something that I could rest my entire life on,’ ” he says. “Those questions were being answered, and I was becoming more confident. And more prayerful.”

Wait a minute. What "conversion"?

The implication is that Ferguson at some point had a conversion experience that brought him into, or brought him back to, the Christian faith. it would appear that this happened in a Protestant context.

But the deepening "conversion" led him back to Catholicism. This is a common, but tricky, path to walk and I, for one, wish the Post team had probed at this point. Did this future priest actually start attending a Protestant church? Which one?

Most importantly, what ultimately led him deeper into Catholicism? There is this crucial -- and quite beautiful -- section of the feature.

This is long, but essential. Read carefully, because this contains a crucial hole:

He helped establish a young adult ministry in the Richmond diocese and was soon spending almost every evening in the company of like-minded 20-something Catholics, either studying scripture or volunteering in the community. All the while, he says, he was looking for “the right girl. I wanted to date and marry -- that was my goal.”But late at night, unencumbered and alone, he also started wondering about the priesthood. “I’d switch away from the EHarmony tab to the vocations website,” he recalls. “There was a growing little ember of curiosity. At first it was horrifying. It was horrifying.”A priest who became a friend sensed Ferguson’s interest. And in 2012, that priest invited him to take part in a Good Friday service, helping to hold up a large cross for parishioners to venerate. “Standing there, holding this cross as it was physically being pushed down by people who were leaning on it, I was moved with love for these people,” he says. “And I remember standing there in the middle of the church, thinking to myself, ‘God, if You want me to spend my life serving these people, I will.’  ”

That's the big moment and, as is often the case in these stories, the best quote points toward desires to be of service to a faith community. Maybe that motivation is easier for a reporter to understand and to discuss in a major newspaper.

But read deeper. This personal revelation takes place on Good Friday, while he is -- literally -- carrying a cross. Ferguson, in effect, decides that he is willing to make sacrifices in his life to follow his deepening faith into the priesthood.

Might this moment have had SOMETHING to do with Jesus, the cross and Good Friday? Can you imagine a moment -- out of the entire Christian year -- that carries more symbolic weight than Good Friday, if you are looking for liturgical content linked to sacrifice, the priesthood and carrying one's cross? What a time to make this decision!

I sense the need for a follow-up question, or two, or three. You think?

Or maybe Ferguson said other things at that point in the interview that were, well, a bit to Jesus-y for the news template?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Washington Post: Is Karen Pence the strong, hidden angel behind the vice president?

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

I’ve long been curious about Karen Pence, who is Vice President Mike Pence’s better half and probably one of the most likeable and approachable members of the Donald Trump administration. Fortunately, the Washington Post just came out with a profile, titled “Karen Pence is the vice president’s ‘prayer warrior,’ gut check and shield.”

Well, I thought, this should be good. And it’s a lot better than what the New York Times did on her.

Karen Pence refused to be interviewed for the Post story, which meant the reporter had to work twice as hard to get info. This also tells you something about the current relationship between this White House and the biggest newsroom inside the Beltway.

This being GetReligion, obviously we’re interested in the “prayer warrior” portion of the piece which starts thus:

As second lady, Karen Pence, 60, remains an important influence on one of President Trump’s most important political allies. She sat in on at least one interview as the vice president assembled his staff, accompanied her husband on his first foreign trip and joins him for off-the-record briefings with reporters, acting as his gut check and shield.  On the vice president’s visit last month to Germany and Belgium, the Pences quietly toured Dachau concentration camp, often holding hands, and huddled together on the Air Force Two ride home to debrief on the trip. When Mike Pence, 57, ventured to the back of the plane to chat off the record with reporters, his wife accompanied him, bearing a silver tray of cookies and standing by his side for the 20-minute conversation.  

Next, the Post delved into what few details were available about her first marriage, which quickly ended in divorce. At least they tracked down her first husband, who now lives here in Seattle.

Then, she met Mike Pence at church. The article continues:

The Pences were married in a Roman Catholic church in 1985 but later became evangelical Christians.In 2002, Mike Pence told the Hill that he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife and that he won’t attend events featuring alcohol without her by his side, either.

Now, Pence’s journey toward evangelical Christianity has been well documented, but not that of his wife.

How did she go from Catholic to evangelical? We’re not told.

If you’re divorced and Catholic, you can’t take Communion unless you get your marriage annulled. Since the Pence wedding was in a Catholic church, obviously an annulment was obtained. Then something made Karen Pence start gravitating toward evangelical Protestantism and by 1995, the couple was attending Grace Evangelical Church in Indianapolis. Maybe the reporter could have tried to connect those dots.

Also, the part about Pence not eating alone with any woman but his wife -- what is that all about? I know pastors who refuse to meet alone with women (following the “Billy Graham rule”)  because they fear temptation or entrapment.

At least the reporter interviewed someone at the Family Research Council who knows about the Pences’ religious commitment and who had a good quote.

“You can’t get a dime between them,” said Ken Blackwell, senior fellow at the Family Research Council and a senior domestic policy adviser on the Trump transition team. “It is not him seeking her approval, but his doing a sort of gut check with what they have learned together and come up through together in terms of their shared Christianity.”


Friends of Pence -- who say she quietly held a small Bible study group during her time in the governor’s mansion -- say her faith has sustained her through challenging periods, from when she and Mike first had trouble getting pregnant to the vagaries of politics, including her initial reluctance to support his third attempt to win a congressional seat. Vicki Lake, the wife of the Pences’ former pastor, recalled a visit from Karen Pence one day at her Greenwood, Ind., home. As Pence was leaving, Lake recalled, “She grabbed my hands, and we prayed together in my laundry room.” “That’s the kind of person she is, a person who believes in prayer, a godly mother and wife,” Lake said. “In fact, when Mike was a congressman, Karen would send out prayer requests to people -- to pray for them as a family, that God would give them the strength to do all that they had to do.” 

There’s a few things missing from this piece. This New York Times piece says that when in Indiana, they now worship at College Park Church, an evangelical megachurch in Indianapolis. What made them leave Grace Evangelical and where in Washington are they worshiping now? Someone must know.

(Note: After this piece was posted, I was contacted by a "someone" who told me where the Pences used to worship while he was a member of Congress living in the area: At Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, Va., where Karen Pence taught art at Immanuel's Christian school.)

Also, a video with the article says they are both still devout Catholics while we know they’ve been evangelicals for 20 years. 

It’s obvious the reporter worked hard to interview everyone she could find to get information about a woman who’s a heartbeat or a scandal away from being a president’s wife. Apparently Karen Pence hasn’t left much of a written record anywhere of her thoughts and faith journey.

One omission I was surprised to see was about the Pences’ appearance at the annual March for Life rally on the Mall on Jan. 27. Karen, of course, was at his side and spoke first to the crowd. Their arrival was a shocker to pro-lifers who are used to being ignored by the White House and Pence was the highest official ever to attend the event.

What part did Karen Pence play in the decision to be there? There was a lot in this article, but so much more could have been said. 

Categories: Main

'God and cannabis': Newspaper offers serious take on church that believes in smoking marijuana

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

At a pro-marijuana church in Alabama, members sing the praises of 'God and cannabis.'

— (@aldotcom) March 20, 2017

Ever heard of a pot-smoking church?

If you pay attention to the news, such churches seem difficult to miss lately.

When Indiana passed its religious freedom law in 2015, questions — and controversy — arose as to whether the measure would open the legal door to the First Church Of Cannabis.

Last year, the Los Angeles Times gave national coverage to the Stoner Jesus Bible Study in Centennial, Colo.

And most recently, longtime religion writer Greg Garrison of the Birmingham News and Alabama Media Group profiled a pro-marijuana church (as part of a series on marijuana in that Bible Belt state):

With a stained-glass window behind them, a lineup of speakers stepped to the front of the church and talked about the potential health benefits of legalizing plants that are currently outlawed in Alabama."I smoke cannabis on a daily basis for my pain," said Janice Rushing, president of the Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light in Alabama. "If I did not, I'd be on pain pills."Her husband, Christopher Rushing, chief executive officer of Oklevueha Native American Church of Inner Light, says he also uses marijuana routinely.The Rushings founded the Oklevueha Church in 2015 and claim that it has a legal exemption for its members to smoke marijuana and ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms and peyote cactus.At a January forum with an audience of about 30 gathered at Unity Church in Birmingham, which allowed the use of its facilities, speakers discussed the potential benefits of marijuana and other substances for medicinal purposes."I had an ungodly facial rash," said Sherrie Saunders, a former U.S. Army medic who is now a member of Oklevueha Native American Church in Alabama."We made a cream that completely got rid of that rash," Mrs. Rushing said.Someone in the audience discussed a heart problem and sleep apnea."That could be something that cannabis could help," Saunders said.

Kudos to Garrison for a solid piece of reporting on — believe it or not — "God and cannabis."

As we've noted previously, the Religion News Association points to certain traits that are assets for religion journalists: Respect for the role of faith in people's lives. Immense curiosity about religion. An abiding sense of fairness and balance. A commitment to covering all kinds of diversity.

And this:

Willingness to spend time with all sorts of people in the places where they live, gather and worship.

Garrison does just that with this story.

The veteran Godbeat pro offers important factual details, along with valuable context such as this:

The National Cancer Institute, in its overview of cannabis in treatment of cancer, makes no claims for curative powers, but acknowledges that cannabis has been used for medicinal purposes for thousands of years and that it "may have benefits in the treatment of cancer-related side effects." 

And this:

Researchers at UAB and other universities are studying the benefits of such natural treatments, including the use of psylocibin mushrooms in treating cocaine abuse. Peter Hendricks, a clinical psychologist at UAB, is currently doing research on the use of the active ingredient in psylocibin mushrooms.Hendricks spoke in May 2016 at a Homewood Public Library event sponsored by the church. He spoke again in January at the event at Unity Church in Birmingham.Hendricks said he only talks about his research at the church-sponsored events and does not endorse Rushing's church or whether its use of drugs is legal or not. The events give Hendricks a chance to advertise the research trials, which still need volunteers. Hendricks' research explores the use of mushrooms in weaning addicts off serious drug addictions.

As you noticed, Garrison gives serious treatment to the church and its beliefs. Readers can assess the facts and form their own opinions based on them.

That's good journalism.

Categories: Main

AP deploys full Kellerism to summarize North Carolina's 'bathroom bill' business price tag

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

North Carolina's HB2, the so-called "bathroom bill," is again making headlines, this time in a rather large and detailed Associated Press account of the economic losses the news organization reports the Tar Heel State has suffered:

Despite Republican assurances that North Carolina's "bathroom bill" isn't hurting the economy, the law limiting LGBT protections will cost the state more than $3.76 billion in lost business over a dozen years, according to an Associated Press analysis.Over the past year, North Carolina has suffered financial hits ranging from scuttled plans for a PayPal facility that would have added an estimated $2.66 billion to the state's economy to a canceled Ringo Starr concert that deprived a town's amphitheater of about $33,000 in revenue. The blows have landed in the state's biggest cities as well as towns surrounding its flagship university, and from the mountains to the coast. ...The AP analysis ( ) -- compiled through interviews and public records requests — represents the largest reckoning yet of how much the law, passed one year ago, could cost the state. The law excludes gender identity and sexual orientation from statewide antidiscrimination protections, and requires transgender people to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificates in many public buildings.

While it may surprise some folks that the 76-year-old former Beatle, born Richard Starkey, is still touring, it seems equally surprising that the AP, once held up as an example of objectivity and down-the-middle reporting, has produced a report laden with advocacy language. The piece lacks almost any perspective from those who believe HB2 has its merits, particularly on faith-based grounds and the protection of women and children. (I say "has" instead of "had" because, despite efforts to repeal the law, HB2 remains on the books, as the ABC News video above shows.)

The North Carolina "bathroom bill" issue has attracted global media attention and allegedly was the reason companies such as PayPal, Deutsche Bank and real estate firm CoStar decided against basing offices or expansion in the state.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat who may have won his job last November in part because of a backlash over HB2, told the news agency, "We now know that, based on conservative estimates, North Carolina's economy stands to lose nearly $4 billion because of House Bill 2. ... We need to fix this now."

Then again, the AP last week issued an update to its noted Stylebook that suggests a decision on gender reporting issues has been made. Discussing "gender," the update reads:

Not synonymous with sex. Gender refers to a person’s social identity while sex refers to biological characteristics. Not all people fall under one of two categories for sex or gender, according to leading medical organizations, so avoid references to both, either or opposite sexes or genders as a way to encompass all people. When needed for clarity or in certain stories about scientific studies, alternatives include men and women, boys and girls, males and females.Language around gender is evolving. Newsrooms and organizations outside AP may need to make decisions, based on necessity and audience, on terms that differ from or are not covered by AP’s specific recommendations. For instance, the AP recommends the term sex reassignment for the medical procedures used for gender transition, while some groups use the term gender confirmation instead. The AP allows for LGBT and LGBTQ to be used on first reference without spelling out the acronyms; some other organizations use LGBTQIA and other variations on first reference or without explanation.

Well, "leading medical organizations" have decided the matter, so that's that, I suppose. No room for discussion, debate or dissension. Next!

Here at GetReligion, we view such presentations as examples of "Kellerism," the editorial view (doctrine?) that once a moral, cultural or religious issue has been decided, there's no need to present other viewpoints, such as those whose faith-based worldview might clash with the opinions of "leading medical organizations." 

The AP adheres to this in its "analysis," allowing only a slight, unattributed rebuttal to the argument that HB2 is bad not only for pop music fans but also for North Carolina's economy:

HB2 supporters say its costs have been tiny compared with an economy estimated at more than $500 billion a year, roughly the size of Sweden's. They say they're willing to absorb those costs if the law prevents sexual predators posing as transgender people from entering private spaces to molest women and girls — acts the law's detractors say are imagined.

Among those "imagined" acts might be a July 2016 incident in Ammon, Idaho, in which "a transgender Idaho Falls woman was arrested ... on one count of felony voyeurism" in a "private space" at the local Target store, specifically a dressing room. Such incidents are what HB2 supporters say motivated the passage of the North Carolina bill, which only covers restrooms in public buildings and not private businesses.

Granted, this is an economics-oriented story and not an issues analysis. But even there, the AP falls short, I believe, in presenting important viewpoints., an advocacy group, noted dozens of businesses, by name, that lined up to support HB2. While the majority appear to be small businesses, some may not be, and perhaps one or two could have been interviewed by the AP.

But the "holy ghost" in this story is the AP's total omission — except for noting the Lutheran Financial Managers Convention dropped Fayetteville as a convention location, costing the town $36,000 — of the faith community there. Billy Graham lives near Asheville, of course, and the evangelistic group that bears his name employs hundreds in Charlotte. Numerous other evangelical organizations and ministries are in the state as well. Among those enterprises is the Inspiration Network, the renamed remnant of Jim Bakker's onetime satellite/cable franchise.

Was there not one executive at any of these groups available? The Graham organization, in 2015, reported a total of $90 million in contributions, which surely makes it a major economic force, given that the ministry also spent $9.7 million in general and administrative costs. Let's also remember that there's a Billy Graham Library in Charlotte and a Billy Graham Training Center in Asheville, each of which draws thousands of visitors annually.

From an economic standpoint and a public opinion standpoint, the AP's tally of costs for HB2 comes up short. The business voices are heavily weighted towards HB2's critics, and the faith-friendly voices are missing. And for many readers, that's a disappointment.

Home page image: Gender-neutral toilets at the sociology department, Gothenburg University in Gothenburg, Sweden, public domain photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Categories: Main

Good reporting takes time: Yes, the London attacker had a complex journey into Islam

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Whenever there is an act of international terrorism, I get emails wanting to know why elite newsrooms are hesitant to connect the dots and use the word "Islam" in the initial coverage.

Well, there have been cases in which reporters have worked their way around some rather obvious, and easy to report, clues that point in that direction -- such as words shouted by the attackers, as reported by eyewitnesses. Often, journalists bury the name of the suspect it is points toward the Middle East or another majority-Islamic culture.

However, there are also cases in which these kinds of clear, on-the-record references are not initially available. At that point, you have public officials saying that they are treating the crime as an act of "international terrorism," and everyone is supposed to know what that means. You can see an example of this in the overture of an early New York Times report about the attack at Westminster Bridge.

LONDON -- A knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle mowed down panicked pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside Parliament on Wednesday in a deadly assault, prompting the hasty evacuation of the prime minister and punctuating the threat of terrorism in Europe.At least four people, including the assailant, were killed and at least 40 others injured in the confusing swirl of violence, which the police said they assumed had been “inspired by international terrorism.” It appeared to be the most serious such assault in London since the deadly subway bombings more than a decade ago.

This does raise a question: Does the Associated Press Stylebook now include a reference stating that "international terrorism" is officially a reference to radicalized forms of Islam?

Of course not. It is also important that reporters not rush ahead of the facts -- even as ISIS leaders send out their social-media taunts. The bottom line for journalists: Don't hide the early evidence, but don't make assumptions, either.

It's crucial to keep reading, day after day, as journalists (and security officials) do their work. You can see this in the solid Times follow-up on that hellish attack, a lengthy feature that attempts to trace the attacker's journey into radical Islam. It's clear that officials are looking for ties to other groups, but are also being cautious.

The overture is sadly predictable. In this case, that is not a complaint:

BIRMINGHAM, England -- He described himself as “friendly and approachable.” He had a degree in economics, and said he was a good listener.Adrian Russell Ajao, the man who drove a car into pedestrians in the shadow of Big Ben and then killed a police officer with a knife in Britain’s worst act of terrorism since 2005, and who called himself Khalid Masood after converting to Islam in his late 30s, was a 52-year-old husband and father.Prone to violent outbursts as a younger man, he had led a quiet life in recent years, usually attracting notice from the neighbors only when he washed his car in the driveway or mowed his lawn. Most afternoons he would pick up his two youngest children from primary school in a quiet suburban part of Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England.Occasionally, though, a darker side broke through. “When he spoke about religion,” said a neighbor who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, “he suddenly was a different man." ...

Along the way, lots of familiar clues emerge. Masood spent two years in Saudi Arabia. He had been in jail twice. He was older than most terrorists, but he had a history of violent rage earlier in his adult life. In one way, he was linked to a disturbing trend in Britain -- he was a convert to Islam who for some reason turned to violence.

I appreciated the detail in this reference, pointing to a smartphone app known for its privacy and encryption protocols.

Only minutes before Mr. Masood pressed down on the accelerator at 2:41 p.m. on Wednesday as he mounted the sidewalk on Westminster Bridge, his WhatsApp account on his phone was active, security officials said. Whether he was receiving direction from someone at home or overseas, or just saying goodbye to his wife, is not yet known.

Readers can see the kinds of detail that reporters dig out once they have a name and enough time to dig into public records and to find people who knew the attacker.

I thought that this passage was especially effective. It begins with details from ordinary life, then probes deeper into a disturbing past:

In the Birmingham neighborhood where Mr. Masood lived with his family until last December, Marjoli Gajecka, 26, described a quiet and outwardly observant Muslim who wore a beard, a skullcap and mostly cream-colored Islamic robes. His wife, also in a robe, and his two daughters wore head scarves.“He was a very calm person, a family person, I think a good father as he was taking kids to school, bringing them back, coming back from shopping with his wife,” said Ms. Gajecka, whose mother lives two doors down from the Masoods’ former home. ...Investigators are working on the assumption that Mr. Masood converted to Islam in one of Britain’s prisons, some of them known as incubators of radical Islam, particularly during the years he was incarcerated. He first landed in prison in 2000, after a judge sentenced him, then 35 and known as Adrian Elms, to nearly three years for slashing a cafe owner’s face after an argument.At the time, Mr. Masood, who is mixed race, was living in Northiam, a village in southeast England. He was known to take a drink, and displayed no outward signs of piety. He left his victim, Piers Mott, with a three-inch gash on his left cheek that required 20 stitches. News reports during the trial at Hove Crown Court said the argument between the two men was racially tinged.

So what's the big idea here?

Reporting takes time and readers need to understand that. In this case, I didn't see material in other early media reports that pros at the Times and other top newsrooms went out of their way to avoid. If I am wrong about that, please let me know.

But I am sincere in asking this question: Do Muslim readers think this "international terrorism" (hint, hint) code language is less offensive than reporters noting that investigators are probing links to organizations that preach twisted, radical forms of Islam?

Just asking.

Categories: Main

Seattle Weekly offers the story of a heroic gay mayor and the 'prison' that is Catholicism

Monday, March 27, 2017

The mayor of Seattle is a gay Catholic whose 2013 wedding to his male partner was at the local Episcopal cathedral. Ed Murray’s insistence on staying Catholic fascinated one editor at the Seattle Weekly to the point where he asked the mayor if Murray would expound on his faith.

The result was this nearly 4,000-word piece that ran about a month ago. The reporter stated up front that he didn’t wish to raise the issue of whether Murray was a “true” Catholic in terms of abiding by the doctrines of his faith, but instead learn why the mayor has stuck with a church that on many levels doesn’t want him. We will not read, in this long piece, what the church teaches about marriage and how the mayor flouts it.

Still, as far as I know, this is the only article anyone has done on the mayor’s faith journey. This is something the Seattle Times should have done years ago.

Thus, I am glad the Weekly stepped up to the plate, even though the premise is those who defy the teachings of the Catholic church are heroic while those who honor their vows to the church are, at best, robots.

After some intro paragraphs, the article picks up with:

Murray’s Catholic faith can seem a study in contradiction. Not only is he a practicing Catholic in a secular city, he is a gay man who has remained in a church that has been outright hostile toward homosexuality; he is a public official who seeks to follow the path of (Catholic Worker Movement foundress Dorothy) Day, who refused financial assistance from the government and declined to pay her taxes for years at a time; he is an impossibly busy man who says he feels closest to his Catholic faith when he is practicing quiet Benedictine meditation, which requires he wake at 5:30 a.m. if he has any hope of doing it at all.

After describing Murray’s childhood, it relates how he found certain Catholic institutions more gay-friendly than he had anticipated.

After graduating from high school, Murray attended St. Thomas Seminary in Kenmore, exploring the priesthood. After a year there, he decided against it, and finished his college studies at the University of Portland, a Catholic institution. There he got to know Trappist monks who introduced him to monastic worship, and counseled him on, among other things, his homosexuality, which he began to acknowledge in college. Far from the pious recriminations one might expect, Murray says that in college he was encouraged by priests to embrace that part of himself, rather that feel shame about it. It was further evidence, for Murray, that the Catholic Church, especially in its social-justice form, was a home for him, rather than the prison many people considered it.

“Many people?” Who does the reporter have in mind? Catholics who hang out with reporters from alternative newspapers?

Many of the world’s 1 billion-plus Catholics think their faith is anything but a prison. 

But for Murray, life outside the church proved less tenable that his life within it. Strangely, what brought Murray back to the church was the work of a Protestant, Kathleen Norris. In 1997, during Murray’s second full term in office, the South Dakota author published The Cloister Walk, a memoir of her time spent at Benedictine monasteries. A bestseller, it reminded Murray of his time with the Trappist monks in Oregon. “I read it, and it really was like a glass wall shattered. Here was a Protestant woman from the Dakotas introducing my tradition back to me. … I didn’t feel spiritually whole until I came back to the church as a practicing Catholic. There’s no other explanation I can give for it: As a spiritual home and a spiritual experience, it’s where I belong.”

After the turn of the century, Murray became involved in state politics, helping to craft the state’s same-sex marriage law.

After explaining how some bishops wouldn’t allow presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry take Communion because of his pro-abortion stance, Murray wondered if the same fate awaited him.

In 2012 … With the archdiocese actively campaigning against the law, it was not farfetched for Murray to fear a backlash. “I remember having a conversation [with another Catholic elected official] about the anxiety and pain that that kind of action would create for us,” Murray says. “To be denied [the Sacraments] is to be separated from the heart of your spiritual tradition.”

But he was never turned away from Communion, even after his very public marriage in 2013.

This raises a rather important question: Where does the mayor attend church and why isn’t that in the article? Is there a fear that the local archdiocese may pounce on whatever parish keeps serving Murray consecrated bread and wine?

I also get suspicious of too-good-to-be-true narratives when one person is angelic and the others mentioned (various Catholic officials) are always the bad guys. What saves this from being simply a puff piece are several meaty paragraphs about whether Murray is true to his faith in terms of how he deals with Seattle’s huge homeless population.

Today, the mayor seems more surefooted when talking about his Catholic faith -- in part no doubt because his public-policy focus has shifted from same-sex marriage to poverty. For someone raised on the writings of Day and now leading a city that counts at least 3,000 homeless people among its population, the connection between faith and civic responsibility is easy to make. Still, the mayor’s faith does conflict with his approaches to the issue. As a politician who must compromise to lead, Murray is not able to fully live by Day’s model; by invoking her, as he has on numerous occasions, he is setting a bar he can’t possibly meet. …Murray defends his record on homelessness, noting that he’s drastically increased funding for homeless services. (During his State of the City speech, he announced an effort to pass a $55 million levy dedicated to funding for the homeless.) However, he recognizes the limitations he faces. “On some days, I’ll read things like Matthew, Chapter 25: Did you feed me when I was hungry? Did you clothe me? Did you welcome me when I was a stranger? That’s exactly who the homeless are. But how do I live that out in a city that’s also seen a rise in garbage and destruction and criminal activity?

The story ends with an anecdote about the Vatican inviting 40 mayors from around the world to Rome several years ago to discuss climate change. Murray was on that list, a tremendous victory for him.

So this piece does give us many insights into the impossible place the mayor is put into as wanting to live out Dorothy Day-like principles in the face of political realities. How many mayors really even know or care about Catholic Worker values?

However, the reporter didn’t stay true to his stated intent at the beginning of the piece to not argue whether Murray was true to the rules of his faith. That caveat allowed the reporter to dodge the debate over whether one can be an openly gay man in a same-sex marriage and slso a faithful, sacramental Catholic. However the reporter did grade Murray on that exact question in terms of his treatment of the homeless.

I’m not faulting the writer for letting the mayor define his faith the way he wants, but I wish he had pressed Murray a bit more. Certainly Murray resonates with Pope Francis but does he agree with everything the pope says and not just his pronouncements on the environment? Can one pick and choose elements of the faith? 

It's easy for reporters to fault the Catholic Church for, as the article words it, the church's "laser focus on sex." But that's where the culture was headed, with everything from abortion and cohabitation to birth control and homosexuality on the table for the past 50 years. The Catholic Church was also focused on the evils of war and world Communism; the latter not a huge concern for Seattleites but a huge deal for a Polish pope concerned about the oppressed millions in eastern Europe. 

It's good that the Seattle Weekly portrayed the local mayor as the complex man he is. I hope they remember that those who disagree with him in his own church are not villains either.

Categories: Main

'Released Time' religious education: High school's Muslim prayer room raises constitutional questions

Monday, March 27, 2017

When I worked for The Associated Press in Dallas from 2003 to 2005, my family lived in the fast-growing bedroom community of Frisco, Texas.

I remember writing about the "kindergarten boom" that the suburb was experiencing at that time:

FRISCO, Texas — Cindi Wright jokes that the shopping mall in this one-time farming community — now one of the nation's fastest-growing cities — resembles a stroller convention."It has more strollers per capita than any other mall," said Wright, a mother of three young children.Babies don't stay little for long, though, as educators in this city 25 miles north of Dallas have figured out.The Frisco school district graduated fewer than 400 high school seniors in May, but it expects a crush of about 1,600 kindergartners when the new school year starts Monday.Low interest rates and plenty of available housing have fueled an influx of young families, producing a kindergarten boom unmatched in Texas, demographers say."I don't know what it is," said Wright, 33. "It just seems like everybody's our age and everybody's having kids."

A dozen-plus years later, some of those kids are students at a Frisco high school that — in recent days — has drawn the attention of top Texas politicians and made national headlines:

The Texas Attorney General is looking into the Public School Prayer Room issue many of you have questioned. #txlege

— Greg Abbott (@GregAbbott_TX) March 17, 2017

The Dallas Morning News reported on the controversy earlier this month (for those not familiar with Texas education lingo, "ISD" stands for "Independent School District"):

Frisco ISD responded tersely on Friday to the Texas attorney general's concerns about the legality of a prayer room at Frisco's Liberty High School that is often — but not solely — used by Muslim students.Frisco ISD learned of the AG's concerns on Friday from the media about the same time a news release was sent from the AG's office along with a copy of a letter addressed to district Superintendent Jeremy Lyon. The letter from Deputy Attorney General Andrew Leonie states that "it appears that students are being treated differently based on their religious beliefs," which would violate the First Amendment.Lyon's letter in response, posted online late Friday on the district's website, suggests the concern "appears to be a publicity stunt by the OAG to politicize a non-issue."The prayer room is open to any students and does get used by students of other faiths, according to the district's spokesman."Frisco ISD is greatly concerned that this type of inflammatory rhetoric in the current climate may place the District, its students, staff, parents and community in danger of unnecessary disruption," Lyon wrote in his letter.

On Sunday night, NPR's "All Things Considered" highlighted the matter:

.@stellamchavez reports on a Texas school's move to make a prayer room that's attacting Muslim students

— AllThingsConsidered (@npratc) March 27, 2017

From that report by Stella Chavez of NPR member station KERA of Dallas:

CHAVEZ: It's not clear how many public schools in Texas have prayer rooms or designated areas where students can pray, but they are legally allowed in schools across the country. Joy Baskin is with the Texas Association of School Boards.

JOY BASKIN: It's a concept that courts have looked at for many years. It's called release time. And it's the idea that in order to follow a tenant of faith the student is briefly excused.CHAVEZ: She says students can leave class or campus for religious purposes. Schools can also allow head coverings or meet students' dietary restrictions. Kelly Shackelford is CEO of First Liberty Institute, a legal organization that focuses on religious freedom. He says students can gather to pray in school as long as the same accommodations are made for students of other faiths, and the school must remain neutral.KELLY SHACKELFORD: The law is that we don't want the government, you know, which is running the schools, to push religion or try to force anybody into a particular religion but to provide the students who have perfect freedom under the First Amendment to live out their faith.

Two reactions to that brief segment of NPR's coverage:

1. I have interviewed Shackelford from time to time over the years, including in 2004 when he represented four families who filed a federal lawsuit accusing the Plano, Texas, school district — which borders Frisco — of banning Christmas and religious expression from their children's classrooms. The First Liberty Institute often takes the cases of conservative Christians claiming violations of their religious rights.

2. This is the first news report on the Frisco controversy that I've seen mention the "release time" — or "Released Time" — accommodation. I am familiar with that concept, having reported a few years ago on a Released Time Christian education program in South Carolina that teaches the Bible during the school day.

It strikes me that delving into the history of Released Time education and case law might be appropriate for reporters covering the Frisco story.

Here is a big chunk of the background that I included in my 2013 story:

Decades ago, religious instruction occurred on public school grounds themselves, said Charles C. Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Program in Washington, D.C.“Kids would go to a class taught by a religious leader, depending on their choice,” Haynes told The Christian Chronicle. “It might be a priest, minister or rabbi. That was not uncommon in American public schools for a period of time.”But in 1948 — in the case McCollum v. Board of Education — the Supreme Court ruled that religious groups and school officials had cooperated unconstitutionally to provide religious instruction.“Here not only are the State’s tax-supported public school buildings used for the dissemination of religious doctrines,” Justice Hugo Black wrote. “The State also affords sectarian groups an invaluable aid in that it helps provide pupils for their religion classes through use of the state’s compulsory public school machinery. This is not separation of Church and State.”Four years later, however, the 1952 case Zorach v. Clauson set the legal precedent that still governs Released Time.In that case, the high court ruled specifically on the constitutionality of off-campus, Released Time programs, emphasizing the difference between schools supporting religious indoctrination and merely accommodating children’s religious needs.“We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being,” Justice William O. Douglas wrote in the landmark decision. “When the State encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it then follows the best of our traditions, for it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public services to their spiritual needs.”The decision allows schools to permit Released Time, but it does not require them to do so, legal experts said.

Given that a few years have passed since I researched that subject, I don't recall the specifics of how Released Time relates to what is happening in Frisco. In a discussion among our team, tmatt added:

Interesting. Could Eastern Orthodox students pray with icons in that room at the same time as Muslims? Can Young Life meet in there for prayer and Bible study?I know that this is legal. I just want to know more about the laws that govern this operation. I imagine that there are some. RIGHT NOW, who else is using the room?

I responded:

My understanding of "Released Time" law is that the school would need to provide comparable facilities for students of varying faiths, not necessarily the same room.

But again, I am no expert. My understanding could be wrong.

However, my point and that of my colleague is this: There is an interesting and relevant story here that journalists could — and in my opinion, should — pursue related to the constitutional precedent and questions at play in the Frisco case. 

Image via KERA

Categories: Main

Crux listens as Africans ask: Why isn't it big news when terrorists slaughter our people?

Monday, March 27, 2017

Somewhere in the world, according to this old journalism parable, there is a chart hanging on the wall of a major Associated Press wire service bureau. (Yes, I have discussed this myth before.)

The purpose of the chart is to help editors figure out, when disaster strikes somewhere in the world, just "how big" a story this particular disaster is, compared with others. Is this an A1 or front of the website story? Is this a story that major television networks will mention or perhaps even send personnel to cover? Or was this a story with lots of death and destruction, but it belongs in the back pages somewhere with the other "briefs" that readers won't notice?

The chart has a bottom line and editors can do the math.

It states that, when tragedy or terror strike, 1000 victims in Latvia equals 500 in India, which equals 100 in Mexico, 75 in France, 50 in England, 25 Canada, five in the United States of America (that's flyover country) or one Hollywood celebrity or a famous person in New York City or Washington, D.C.

In other words, according to the mathematics of news, not all human lives are created equal. It's a matter of location, location, location.

The question posed in a quietly provocative piece at Crux, a Catholic-news publication that frequently covers religious persecution, is this: How many terrorist victims in Nigeria do you have to have to equal several victims in the heart of London?

The headline: "In London’s wake, Africans ask: ‘Where’s the outrage for us?’ " This past week, I was in a meeting with a veteran journalist from Nigeria (who also has editing experience in the American Northeast) and he was asking the same question. Here is the overture of the story:

ROME -- In the wake of Wednesday’s terrorist attack on London’s Houses of Parliament that left four dead, the cross-section of African Catholic leaders meeting in Rome this week immediately expressed solidarity and revulsion.“I sympathize, seeing what happened to our brothers in London, it was inhuman,” said Father Joe Shio of Tanzania.Listening carefully, however, these African Catholics were also asking something else: To wit, why is it that when four people are killed in London, it’s a global cause célèbre, but when 40 or 400 die in Africa under violent circumstances, it doesn’t arouse the same outrage?

It's all about that mythical chart on the wire-service bureau wall. Right? And that chart on the wall affects the coverage of other stories, as well.

“Take modern slavery today, human trafficking today … we see an exodus from Africa, especially the young. They’re being buried in the heart of the sea, or dying in the desert. Many are living under forced labor and forced prostitution. Some are sliced open alive and their organs taken away, and left to die,” said Sister M. Maamalifar Poreku, Ghana, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa.“Is this not terrorism? Who’s talking about it?” she told Crux. ... “It’s a question of the power of the media,” Shio said. “The things that get publicity are important and serious, but there are more serious issues that should get at least the same attention, but they don’t. What’s the problem?”

It is tempting, of course, to say that race factors into this news equation. But how many ordinary Nigerians does Boko Haram need to kill to equal the death of one wealthy African-American hip-hop artist?

Money is also very important, but not as important as that hard-to-describe factor that is fame or cultural "buzz." It would be interesting to compare the major-news coverage of the death of George Michael with that of, to back up a few years, Johnny Cash. Who was the greater artist in terms of lasting cultural impact? Ah, but who mattered more to editors in London and New York City?

In the meeting in Rome, Catholic leaders tried to define this mysterious news-industry X factor in other terms:

Father Charles C. Muorah of Nigeria thinks he knows the answer to that question: Money and power. The neglect of African suffering, he said, “has political and economic connotations.”“Colonization is ‘over,’ in parentheses, but it’s taken on new forms. The value of a human person in certain cultures is considered less important, therefore what happens to them doesn’t matter, which frees you to exploit them,” Muorah said.

Of course, has Pope Francis has noted (in the kind of statement that draws relatively little news coverage), there is more to ideological or cultural colonization than money and political power. There is the cultural power of elite media, especially entertainment media, and the causes favored by their leaders. Who typically receives more news coverage today, a YouTube sensation pop star or a Wall Street magnate whose decisions affect millions?

But there is an even larger question here: Who do ordinary readers want to read about?

In other words, does this problem have something to do with the values of the marketplace, in this age when power is measured in Twitter followers and mouse "clicks"? Which story would receive the most coverage in African media, the death of Beyonce or the latest massacre of a hundred Christians in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram?

I think I know the answer to that question, even though it makes me angry.

So Crux covered this story. That's good, but that isn't the issue, is it? Crux has a different chart, because it is a different kind of publication. Welcome to the digital age.

Categories: Main

Thinking about that whole 'evangelical' definition thing, with historian Mark Noll

Sunday, March 26, 2017

So how many times has GetReligion published posts about people -- journalists, academics, politicos, you name it -- struggling to define the term "evangelical"?

That's hard to say, because the question keeps evolving as the term grows more and more political, at least as it is used in the mainstream press. Here is a GetReligion search page that offers you 16 of these post in one handy collection.

This issue shows up in all kinds of settings, but it's clear that the political angle -- #DUH -- is the key here. Here is how I expressed that in a post a few years ago focusing on a familiar question: Why do journalists keep getting confused about the faith practiced by former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum?

A decade ago, the editors of Time magazine decided -- during one of the many "Who the heck are these born-gain people?" moments in the recent life of the mainstream press -- to do a cover story focusing on the 25 most influential evangelical Protestants in American life.It was an interesting list. However, one name in particular raised many eyebrows -- Sen. Rick Santorum. The issue? Santorum was and is a very conservative Roman Catholic.This struck me as interesting, so I did some background research on this issue. The consensus was that the Time team realized that Santorum was not a Protestant -- and thus, not an evangelical -- but the larger truth was that he, well, "voted evangelical."

That "voted evangelical" came from a magazine spokesperson. It's a classic.

Now, if I was going to point journalists toward an authoritative voice on this topic, historian Mark Noll would be right at the top of this list. Here is the intro to a Q&A interview with Noll published by the The Record, the student newspaper at Wheaton College.

For 27 years, Dr. Mark Noll served on the History Department faculty, ending his tenure as McManis Professor of Christian Thought in 2006. In 2016, he retired from The University of Notre Dame after teaching for 10 years. Mark Noll’s book “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind” (1994) earned him a lasting place in evangelical scholarship. In 2005, Time Magazine named Noll one of the 25 most influential evangelicals in America.

You knew the following question had to come up. Right?

C: Your banner book “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” has, of course, secured you a place in modern history of evangelicalism in America. Do you think that the definition of evangelicalism is changing or has changed, since you wrote your famous book in 1994?M: I think people your age are going to have to answer that question. Because I think the real problem is trying to define evangelical in any simple way. The things that David Bebbington identified, that others have used and I’ve used -- cross, Bible, conversion, activity in the world -- these all characterize broadly speaking “evangelical” people. I don’t actually think “evangelicalism” exists. There are evangelical institutions, evangelical movements, evangelical people, evangelical emphases. But you say, what’s the institutional or organizational continuity? And there just isn’t any. So does the word mean anything? If when people hear “evangelical” they think of something political first, then the serious meaning of the word is gone.

Wait, there is more.

How does one explain"evangelical" support for one Donald Trump?

M: I think what’s called “evangelical support for Trump” had to do with the pro-life position of the Republican party, it had to do with a lot of antagonism against some of the cultural steps taken by the Obama administration. It certainly had to do with the memory of Bill Clinton’s immorality in the White House, and a lot of white evangelicals were concerned about economics. ... I do think we have increasing numbers of Christian academics who would have a much more sophisticated approach to political life than, “I’m angry at Hillary so I’m voting for Trump.” But I’m worried about the Christian populace at large listening all the time to their media go-to and never being concerned about folks who are trying to see things more broadly.

There is more, of course. And what about Wheaton and the headlines about the professor who said that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.?

Read it all. Also, click here for a fine Library of Congress interview with Noll.

Categories: Main

Religion, morality and terrorism: How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?

Saturday, March 25, 2017


I remember being shocked years ago that some Irish terrorist acts were carried out in the name of Catholicism. What were the reactions to that, compared with the support or denial of Muslims toward violent jihad today? (Paraphrased)


The Guy can only sketch a few aspects of the religio-ethnic strife that has so roiled Ireland for centuries, or of the terror syndrome currently plaguing world Islam. Another preliminary point: Believers should realize that such bloodthirsty conflicts are a strong argument skeptics use to brand all religious faith as evil.

Neither Islam nor Catholicism is pacifist in principle. So for both religions the questions become under what circumstances the use of force is moral, and how it should be applied. Ranking authorities in both faiths have denounced terrorism, whether by the Irish Republican Army and related groups made up of Catholics, or by extremist minority Muslims in factions like the Islamic State or ISIS.

There’s similarity between the two situations in that religious identity has been fused with, and often submerged by, power politics and ethnic solidarity. There are also major differences, as follows:

Though sporadic killings still occur, fortunately the IRA’s death campaign ended through democratic negotiations with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. By contrast, terrorism by ISIS and similar Muslim factions in an ongoing, large, well-organized and seemingly ineradicable movement, especially where democracy is limited.

While the IRA campaign occurred in several northern Irish counties with occasional attacks elsewhere, Muslim-inspired terror is raging worldwide, and the scope of the bloodshed is far greater.

With Northern Ireland, the Sutton data base from the start of “the troubles” on July 14, 1969, (a date on which The Guy himself was traveling from Belfast to Dublin!) through December 31, 2001, lists killings of 2,057 IRA and related militants, 1,027 pro-British “loyalists,” and 368 security troops -- a rate just above 100 per year.

By comparison, the Maplecroft company’s standard “Terrorism and Security Dashboard” recorded 18,668 terror-related deaths globally in the year ending July 1, 2014, and a total of 72,165 over the previous five years. Many but not all occurred in Muslim contexts and fellow Muslims were the majority of victims. The dashboard listed nations with the most “extreme risk” of murder in this order: Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Yemen, Syria, the Philippines, Lebanon, Libya.

The religiously crucial difference (contrary to the question) is that IRA operatives almost always spoke in terms of national rights and political gains, not the substance of the Catholicism that defined their ethnicity. By contrast, as Graeme Wood demonstrates in “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State” (Random House), Muslim radicals continually profess religious inspiration and claim precedents from Islam’s early history.

The indigenous Irish and British colonizers waged an ethnic-nationalist struggle long before the Protestant Reformation began to divide European Christendom 500 years ago this year. The resulting Catholic-vs.-Protestant fight in Europe concluded with the disastrous Thirty Years’ War, which ended 369 years ago. Modern agitation over Ireland echoes that earlier conflict.

In Ireland, most people remained religiously loyal to Rome. But in the counties that became Northern Ireland, Catholics were a minority amid Protestants and denominations became the central aspect of ethnic identity. When the “Irish Free State” became independent in 1922, the northern counties remained within Great Britain. The IRA, founded in 1919, opposed that arrangement, by violence when necessary. Its sustained campaign was answered by Protestant terrorism. Today’s non-violent IRA still pursues its hotly contested demand that Northern Ireland leave Britain and merge with the Republic of Ireland.

Caught in a difficult bind, the Catholic church in Ireland was generally ambivalent about nationalism and unification. But teaching on terror was sharply defined during the first papal visit to Ireland by John Paul II in September, 1979. An unusually emphatic papal sermon contended that “the tragic events” in Northern Ireland “do not have their source in the fact of belonging to different churches” so there was no “religious war” between Catholics and Protestants.

John Paul declared that Christians are united in a faith that forbids solutions “by the ways of hatred, of murdering of defenseless people, by the methods of terrorism. ... Peace cannot be established by violence; peace can never flourish in a climate of terror, intimidation, and death. It is Jesus himself who said ‘all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’ This is the word of God, and it commands this generation of violent men to desist from hatred and violence, and to repent.”

It is quite likely that the pope’s admonition helped foster the accord that eventually occurred.

Continue reading "How do IRA Catholics compare with ISIS Muslims?", by Richard Ostling.

Categories: Main

Guardian drags Mike Pence into Christian music festival story, blunting crucial points

Saturday, March 25, 2017

I'm beginning to see a pattern: To get attention in mass media, faith-based events and/or culture have to be tied, however tenuously, to U.S. President Donald J. Trump or his administration.

I get it: Sex sells, and few things, it seems, are more "sexy," news-wise, than the 45th President of the United States and his team.

But sometimes, this desire for a political connection dents an otherwise good and thoughtful piece on culture, faith, and people -- you know, stuff that sometimes exists apart from politics.

For an example, let's turn again to one of Britain's top progressive newspapers, The Guardian. It should be noted that this paper began life as the Manchester Guardian and was once home to Malcolm Muggeridge, a once-socialist reporter whose Christian conversion was one of the great biographical stories of the last century, if you are talking about interesting lives in journalism.

"St. Mugg," as he was known after his radical conversion at age 60, probably wouldn't find a home at The Guardian today. But there are some good writers contributing to its pages, however much they may be caught up in the frenzy of "Must-include-a-Trump-reference" that has overtaken us.

Say hello, then, to Jemayel Khawaja, a freelancer in Los Angeles who knows music and culture quite well. The Pakistani-born Khawaja authored one of the better analyses of contemporary Christian music that I've seen in the media, once you get past the obligatory, almost tortured, Trumpiana:

“Lord Jesus, thank you for dying for me,” says a bearded man in cut-off shorts standing atop a floodlit stage as hundreds of youths look on. “Lord Jesus, you can have my life.” Teenagers in Avenged Sevenfold shirts with bandannas wrapped around their faces bow their heads and pray together. And then the double-time kickdrum drops in, the guitars start chugging, and the mosh pit resumes. This is a scene from Creation North East in Pennsylvania, the biggest Christian music festival in the world.Although obscured from much of the mainstream populace, the subculture of Christian music festivals draws millions of people together every year. ... Over the past three decades, the phenomenon has played a central role in the propagation of contemporary American Christianity. In fact, the influence of Christian music festivals runs all the way up to the White House.Vice President Mike Pence has been called many things. The Intercept has stated that the vice-president will be “The Most Powerful Christian Supremacist in US History," while the New York Times once called him “The Perfect Conservative."Regardless of whether either opinion is true, one major aspect of his identity does appear to be fact: Mike Pence found God at a Christian music festival in 1978. He said so himself in a 2010 interview with the Christian Broadcast Network: “Standing at a Christian music festival in Asbury, Kentucky, in the spring of 1978, I gave my life to Jesus Christ and that’s changed everything.”

Let's stipulate that Pence is a conservative, perhaps too much so for some folks' tastes. We can also grant he isn't liked by many on the left. But, really, "Christian Supremacist"? In the context of writing about largely evangelical music festivals?

The journalistic issue is not only might this be a tenuous connection at best (I'm guessing it's been a number of years since Pence was at a similar event), but it also obscures the greater issue being reported, and that's a shame.

Khawaja, after all, provides some rather trenchant cultural analysis here. Noting that there is now a crossover between those who love "Jesus music" as well as the content generated by a Lady Gaga or a Beyoncé, the author explains some of the consequences:

There is strange irony in the fact that after decades of trying to break Christian acts into mainstream music and eventually succeeding at doing so, that open-door facilitated a cross-pollinization of Christian and secular culture, one that has had deleterious effects on the singular importance many youthful believers place on Christian music as their source for their cultural engagement. ...Even more worrying for traditionalists is that many of the acts performing are not overtly religious in their messaging and do not sing about God, while others even make questioning their faith a central theme of their music. Like it or not, modern Christianity has become intersectional, and it’s a lot harder to influence a generation who pick and choose their identity in a bricolage rather than a one-size-fits-all worldview.Partly because of this, and partly because of the downturn of Christian festivals as a whole, there is a struggle being waged for the soul of the culture. Leaders like Bob Thompson, executive director of the Christian Festival Association, are trying to change what Christian festivals are all about. “As a community, we’re known more for what we’re against than what we’re for,” he says. “We want to acknowledge the negative associations with Christianity – that it’s anti-homosexual, highly judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned, and we don’t accept people of other faiths. We took a real hard look at ourselves and we’re trying to change. We want to be known for what we love, not what we reject.”

These are interesting, even demanding, sentences. Khawaja has identified the tensions within evangelicalism, tied them to culture, and suggested things are moving a tad leftward among the millennial evangelical set and those following behind. That, more than what happened to Mike Pence in 1978, is likely of greater import.

Barring unforeseen circumstances, Pence will have at most eight years as Vice President to influence American politics. The teens and young adults who "want to be known for what we love, not what we reject" might well be active for much longer.

I can imagine, however, Khawaja either believing or being told by an editor, that the story won't fly without the necessary political bits, and that's how they got there. After all, one of the things editors often do is suggest (or even demand) an insert in a story that may or may not jibe with the reporter's vision. It happens.

In this story, which raises valid questions about the Christian music festival scene and the evolution of the culture, however, it would have been helpful to see more of the millennials and a little less of the VPOTUS. The times, after all, may well be a-changing.

FIRST IMAGE: Photo of then-Governor Mike Pence speaking with supporters at a 2016 campaign rally and church service at the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Arizona by Gage Skidmore/Wikimedia Commons.

Categories: Main

The continuing journalism saga of, 'Will someone please explain Christianity to ...'

Friday, March 24, 2017

Welcome of episode three (yes, the podcast) of the ongoing saga of mainstream journalists wrestling with the picky details of Christian tradition and doctrine (that whole Bible thing, you know) about the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.

To catch up on this drama, you may want to glace at "Here we go again: Will someone please explain Christianity to the Associated Press?" and then "Seeking correction No. 2: Will some please explain Christianity to the AP photo desk?"

Concerning that second item, I must report -- sadly -- that, as of this morning -- the Associated Press website still contains the inaccurate photo tag line that reads:

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

To repeat the main point here, Christian tradition (that whole Bible thing, again) teaches that -- after his resurrection -- Jesus spent 40 days with his disciples, was seen by crowds, etc., before his ascension into heaven. Journalists do not have to believe these doctrines. They do, however, need to report the beliefs accurate in stories linked to these sites, biblical passages, holy days and rites.

At the moment, reporters are veering into this territory, of course, because Holy Week and Easter are getting closer. Editors and producers know that it's time to put something into print and video about Easter, a holy day that isn't nearly as commercial and fun (in secular terms) as the season previously known as the Nativity of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

That was the starting point for this week's "Crossroads" podcast. How many times have you seen stories linked to Easter that either mess of the basics of Christianity or actually attack them? We are talking about television specials, covers of major newsweeklies and so forth and so on.

'Tis the season, you know. Talking about this tricky topic led host Todd Wilken to questions that took us right back into the roots of this weblog. For example: Why don't more newsroom managers hire experienced, talented, even award-winning religion-beat professionals to handle this kind of thing. Since Planet Earth is a big place, why doesn't AP have multiple religion writers?

This brings me back to that original Edicule report. Lots of publications are going to need to run corrections because, obviously, a story produced and circulated by the Associated Press is going to go all over the place.

For example, there is The Daily Mail on the other side of the big pond. That newspaper has a tradition of long, long, newsy headlines. Thus, the website still proclaims:

The Jerusalem tomb of Jesus restored: Historic shrine that houses the cave where it is said Christ was buried on a slab and rose to heaven to reopen

Has anyone else seen news reports that managed to get the error into the headline? Amazing.

Also, I continue to get emails about a Vice News report of some kind in which the spin was that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is where Jesus IS buried -- present tense. However, no one is sending me a URL. One person said this was a radio report.

I have also looked on the Vice News website, but clearly I am too old to be able to negotiate such edgy news terrain. #HELPME

Meanwhile there is this, care of the National Geographic. Again, this is a photo tagline:

A conservator cleans the surface of the stone slab venerated as the final resting place of Jesus Christ.

The "final" resting place of Jesus Christ? Is that the wording that best expresses 2,000 years of Christian thought on the resurrection?

Just asking.

Enjoy the podcast.

Categories: Main

A question for Rex Tillerson: Did God really tell him to be secretary of state?

Friday, March 24, 2017

America’s new secretary of state is a man who admits he didn’t want the job; that he’d planned on retiring this month but that God –- speaking through his wife –- told him to do it.

Knowing that, wouldn’t you want to know a bit more details about how the Almighty delivered that set of instructions?

But then the reporter walks away after delivering that piece of news. The profile on Rex Tillerson appeared in the Independent Journal Review, which identifies itself as a “news platform” majoring on breaking news and politics that delivers its content while being “objective, fair and entertaining” (their words).

Not quite what I picked up in journalism school, but their chatty profile on Tillerson fits their stated goal of “fair reporting delivered in an entertaining fashion.”

Am curious what their read is on traditional news media: That they report but don’t entertain? Somehow, IJR has found a way to entertain folks through news reporting and aggregating and they've done well, according to this New York Times piece. But I digress. Here is how IJR began the Tillerson article:

 When it comes to taking on the world, the two words the Trump administration swears by are “America First.”And the man charged with carrying out that policy around the globe didn’t even want the job in the first place. For Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who until now spent the entirety of his career at ExxonMobil, the challenge he faced on a headline-grabbing trip to Asia was how to translate President Donald Trump’s mandate into a workable foreign policy.

Unfortunately, I have to skip much of this entertaining –- and quite readable -– piece to get to the content that GetReligion readers are sure to interested in.

So why, then, did he want the gig?“I didn’t want this job. I didn’t seek this job.” He paused to let that sink in.A beat or two passed before an aide piped up to ask him why he said yes.“My wife told me I’m supposed to do this.”After watching the contortions of my face as I tried to figure out what to say next, he humbly explained that he had never met the president before the election. As president-elect, Trump wanted to have a conversation with Tillerson “about the world” given what he gleaned from the complex global issues he dealt with as CEO of ExxonMobil.“When he asked me at the end of that conversation to be secretary of state, I was stunned.”When Tillerson got home and told his wife, Renda St. Clair, she shook her finger in his face and said, “I told you God’s not through with you.”With a half-worn smile, he said, “I was supposed to retire in March, this month. I was going to go to the ranch to be with my grandkids.”

And? And? Can we have a bit more on how the news arrived from On High? Or just even a mention of kind of believer this man is? There are facts linked to this kind of statement that can be reported.

We have to turn to Religion News Service to find out he’s a Congregationalist, a Wisconsin-based church with a mainline Reformed orientation. That’s a denomination more easily found in New England than Tillerson’s domicile in Texas, which is heavily populated with Baptists, Catholics, Methodists and Pentecostals.

Tillerson may be best known for being part of the executive board of the Boy Scouts of America when it decided in 2013 to allow openly gay young men to become members. He was president of the BSA during 2010-2012, which were the years the organization was re-thinking its former policy excluding gay youth. After weathering that storm, the Trump Administration may be a breeze.

Or almost. Here's Breitbart dinging Tillerson with questions about his commitment to religious freedom. Picking up from IJR:

And that may be why the criticism he’s endured hasn’t pushed him to change course. This is not a man who sees a U.S. president in the mirror every morning, which is the kind of personality Washington, D.C., is used to dealing with in such a prestigious and sought-after job. And he does not have patience for the games we’re used to playing here.Tillerson, who will be 65 on Thursday, senses an opportunity to systematize the State Department and rack up some wins, and he seems intent upon removing emotion from the process. There aren’t likely to be goosebump-inducing, soaring speeches. It’s business.Will he stick around for the whole term?In a sign he’s picking up on the lingo, he crossed his arms and said just a little wryly, “I serve at the pleasure of the president.” It doesn’t seem like he regrets accepting the job.“My wife convinced me. She was right. I’m supposed to do this.”

And … that’s it? The piece doesn’t quite exemplify the “religion ghost” cited so often in GetReligion; that is, the hidden factor in a news story that goes unmentioned but which points to the influence of faith, religion, God, worship, etc. Yes, this story mentions a divine nudge but what form did it take? Remember the dream of Pilate’s wife.

This Media Matters piece goes more into how that article was researched and tells us the writer is a White House reporter. I am guessing she hasn't covered religion very often. Someone more attuned to the beat would have been all over Tillerson with more questions. But a lot of the new online media properties out there like IJR (ie Vox, Quartz) have been slow or reluctant to hire religion reporters. 

Those of you wishing to follow the fortunes of IJR should know that its site gets 30 million visitors a month and it targets millennials. It's part of a company that owns a GOP consulting firm (Nieman Lab has more about that here) and Buzzfeed calls it the Upworthy of the right wing. The guy who runs IJR is 29 years old and has 100 employees.

 Fox News profiled this four-year-old media organization that seeks to create an experience for news consumers. Thus, when they co-sponsored one of the presidential debates, their cameras gave viewers a 360-degree view, allowing watchers to picture themselves in the hall. Although they excel in videos and heavily used Vine, the six-second video platform, Vine’s demise last fall didn’t appear to stop these guys.  

You’re looking at the future of news, folks: Facts served up with entertainment.

Note to IJR: While you’re entertaining us, do try to fill in the gaps; in this case a member of the Cabinet who says God convinced him to take the position. Any organization that is serious about news would have a zillion followup questions on that.

Categories: Main

Glass houses, religious garb, a crucial Middle East sidebar and, of course, Donald Trump

Friday, March 24, 2017

Forget the bromides about how wrong it is to make snap judgements about people based solely on their physical appearance. Truth is, we -- by which I mean virtually every last one of us -- put enormous stock in appearances.

To narrow that generalization down some, I'm referring in particular to the world of religion and religious garb.

Spot a woman wearing a Muslim hijab on Main Street U.S.A. -- not to mention a niqab, or face veil -- and, invariably, we conjure thoughts about what this woman believes and how she practices her faith. Individual perspective colors our thoughts, for sure, but the larger point I'm making is that our minds are largely reactive, so react we will.

Which brings me to the following story that's been wending it way through Israeli and American Jewish news outlets. It is, as you may have guessed, a story about appearances and religious garb. And perhaps, also, the need for endless content in our 24-7 journalistic environment.

President Donald Trump -- despite the claims of critics that, at the least, he's willing to countenance anti-Semitic displays among core supporters -- has several self-identified Orthodox Jews in his entourage.

Most famously, his daughter, Ivanka, a convert to Judaism, and her husband, Jared Kushner, self-identify as Orthodox.

As does Jason Greenblatt, a long-time attorney for Trump's business organization who is now a presidential special envoy. Greenblatt made his first extensive visit to the Middle East on behalf of the president last week, meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Whether or not Greenblatt's effort will bear fruit in bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, is undoubtedly the storyline that's most important here.

But then there's this sidebar: Orthodox Jewish males -- including the socially more liberal Modern Orthodox movement within Orthodox Judaism that the Kushners can be said to embrace -- normally wear a head covering as a sign of respect to God. Most of the time they wear a kippah, Hebrew for the better-known Yiddish term for skull cap, which is yarmulke.

Greenblatt was photographed being the public diplomat with an uncovered head.

That may sound like no big deal. However, in Israel and the wider Middle East, it takes on great importance among those Jews and Muslims who do not differentiate between politics and religion.

This piece from the liberal American Jewish outlet The Forward pulls the story together nicely. Here's the top of it:

President Trump’s adviser on international negotiations just concluded his first trip to the Middle East and won a round of praise from all sides, for his openness and inclusiveness in approaching the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.But some in the Israeli press and on social media noticed another fact: Jason Greenblatt, who is Orthodox, showed up to his meetings both on the Israeli and on the Palestinians side, sans his trademark black kippah.“Trump’s Envoy, Bareheaded, Walks Into Lion’s Den” stated a headline in the Jerusalem Post. The article noted that, “While whether or not someone wants to wear a kippah in public is very much a private matter and his own business, it was impossible not to notice.”Even Reuters could not ignore the fact, including in the news agency’s report on Greenblatt’s diplomatic mission, the note that “Social media commentators were quick to point out that Greenblatt, an Orthodox Jew, had shown a notable degree of religious flexibility during his visit that may reflect a desire to be open and diplomatic: He has not worn his kippah, a skull cap worn by religious Jewish men, all week.”

Makes sense to me. Why complicate an already near-impossible diplomatic dance by wearing your bias on your sleeve? Or head, when you're claiming to be a fair go between.

Greenblatt is far from the first Orthodox Jew operating in the public sphere to doff his head covering. Former Sen. Joseph Lieberman, once a candidate for vice president, also went hat-less in his public political life.

Two other Orthodox Jews with recent White House ties -- Daniel Kurtzer, who served as U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel, and Jack Lew, who served as President Barack Obama’s Treasury Secretary -- did the same.

(I've also known several Orthodox Jewish journalists, for what's it worth, who also left their heads uncovered while on the job. Not all Orthodox journalists look like Jake Turx.

Greenblatt's lack of religious garb and the assumptions it engendered pale, however, in comparison with the scrutiny that Ivanka and Jared Kushner have received for what what some critics regard as their disregard for outward displays of Orthodox piety.

Jared also does not cover his head. And Ivanka? Let's just say I've noticed few signs of the modest dress that Orthodox Jewish women normally display (how the Kushners dress disturbs me not one bit; some of their political actions, on the other hand -- but that's another post).

Criticism of the Kushners has reached the point that they are being defended by some journalists who otherwise oppose just about everything that they and the Trump administration -- remember, both Ivanka and Jared are presidential advisors -- seem to stand for.

Enough, with the religious police! is the general theme.

Andrew Silow-Carroll, editor of JTA, the Jewish wire service, penned a piece back in January, following Trump's inauguration, that expressed this theme. His paragraph that appealed most to me follows.

We all should spend less time worrying about how Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, or any of us, observe Jewish rituals and more time asking how we or they affirm Jewish values. Jared and Ivanka, as close advisers to her father, have an opportunity to make the world a better place, to ensure equal protection for people under law, to build a sense of common cause among a divided country, to raise up the fallen and encourage policies that lead all of us in paths of peace. If they can be forces for that, then it will really be a kiddush Hashem.

Of course it's not just Orthodox Jews who get judged for their appearance. I doubt any religious group that accepts people into its ranks manages to avoid the glass house syndrome.

My question for journalists: do such judgements inappropriately worm themselves into your work?

Categories: Main

Trump returning to Liberty U: Hey CNN, is it indisputable that 'Second Corinthians' is correct?

Thursday, March 23, 2017

It's time to revisit some ancient history — circa 2016 — in the annals of Donald Trump and evangelicalism.

I refer to when The Donald "went down to Liberty University ... looking for a Scripture to quote," as I put it in a GetReligion post at that time.

As you may recall, candidate Trump hit an unexpected bump at Liberty, as CNN noted then:

But Trump, who has eagerly targeted evangelicals – a key voting bloc in the first caucus state of Iowa – in his quest for the presidency, tripped over himself Monday as he attempted to quote from the Bible to connect with the crowd of students at one of the most prominent Christian universities in the country, and the largest in the world."Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ballgame," Trump said, drawing laughter from the crowd of students at Liberty University who knew Trump was attempting to refer to "Second Corinthians."

Why am I bringing this up again now?

Because it's back in the news — somewhat — with the announcement that the president will deliver Liberty's commencement address this spring:

"I look forward to speaking to this amazing group of students on such a momentous occasion," Trump told the Christian Broadcasting Network. Trump added that he looked forward to "celebrating the success of this graduating class as well as sharing lessons as they embark on their next chapter full of hope, faith, optimism and a passion for life."The trip to Liberty University will reunite Trump with one of his most vocal evangelical conservative surrogates, Liberty University President Jerry Falwell.

And yes, it's totally appropriate for reporters to recall the "Two Corinthians" episode, as CNN does:

Trump's lack of biblical lingo drew snickers from the crowd, too."Two Corinthians, 3:17, that's the whole ballgame," Trump had said, describing a biblical verse. The correct terminology is "Second Corinthians."

But that necessary background hurts my feelings just a little bit. Obviously, CNN missed — or forgot — the main point of my post way back when:

Why @realDonaldTrump didn't REALLY mess up when he said 'Two Corinthians':

— GetReligion (@GetReligion) January 19, 2016

For all the details, go back and read that full post. But here's the gist: Some pretty prominent Bible scholars — particularly British ones — use the same "Two Corinthians" language as Trump did. 

So he didn't really mess up.

Except that he admitted that he did — giving an interview in which he cast blame for how he said the biblical epistle's name.

Back to present time: Washington Post religion writer Julie Zaumer nails the "Two Corinthians" background:

This is not the first time Trump has spoken at Liberty. He addressed the school’s convocation in 2012 and again in 2016 during his presidential campaign, when some mocked him for calling a book of the Bible “Two Corinthians” instead of the common American phrasing “Second Corinthians.”

That's a real precise — and accurate — way to put it.

Way to go, Julie!

Categories: Main

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

First the good news.

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

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

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

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

What about the bad news?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

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

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

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

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

What we’re missing at this point is some background

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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