Houston, we have a problem in this stew of a story on a Baptist church's inclusiveness

Houston, we have a problem in this stew of a story on a Baptist church's inclusiveness

The Houston Chronicle had a big story on its front page Sunday on a Baptist church seeking ethnic inclusiveness.

At least I think that was the intended focus.

The problem is that this big story — more than 2,200 words — lacks a true focus.

Is this long-drawn-out piece about racial segregation on Sunday? Is it about the divisive debate over illegal immigration? Is it about conservative Republican politics among white evangelicals?

The Chronicle hopscotches all over the place, awkwardly tying hot topics to the church featured but never really connecting the dots in a cohesive way. 

Often, your GetReligionistas will complain that a story fails to explain where a particular scenario fits into the overall big picture. In this case, there's a whole lot of context — about immigration and Republican politics, for example — but not as much actual insight on the church. Instead of telling a story about the church, the Chronicle turns this report into a politically correct commentary on race and politics.

Let's start at the top:

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Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

Weekend thinker: Yes, turns out we did need another study, more news on 'Nones'

GetReligion readers: Please raise your hand if you have read a news report that discusses the "Nones."

OK, I imagine that this is 100 percent of you. I would think that 90-plus percent of you have read a piece in the past week or so that references, in some way, the Pew Forum's famous "Nones on the Rise" research. I would be hard pressed to name a religion-news related survey, during the past quarter century or more, that has received more coverage.

"Nones," of course, fits better in a headline than the term "religiously unaffiliated," meaning the rising number of Americans -- especially the young -- who say that they no longer affiliate with any particular religious organization, tradition or even heritage.

One of the big problems with that blast of data in 2012 is that many people see the term "None" and immediately think that it means "none," in terms of people having no religious beliefs at all or interest in their own solo, improvised, evolving version of spirituality. Yes, think Sheila and her tribe.

Personally, I think the religiously unaffiliated numbers are tremendously important and I've been following that trend -- reading scholar John C. Green and others -- for more than a decade.

We need more research on this, especially in terms of how it affects (1) marriage and family demographics and (2) which religious traditions rise and which ones fall. The bottom line: Demographics is destiny.

This brings me to a recent Religion News Service feature that I think needs to stand on its own as a weekend think piece, pointing readers toward a new study building on all of those Pew numbers. Yes, the political spin is justified. Here's how this piece opens:

(RNS) A quarter of U.S. adults do not affiliate with any religion, a new study shows — an all-time high in a nation where large swaths of Americans are losing faith.

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Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

Man, that's a tough question: Why isn't this football coach working on Sundays?

College football Saturdays are back, so let's stop and ponder a journalism mystery linked to the new football coaching regime at the University of Virginia.

The feature at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville is pretty direct, starting with the headline: "Part of the Bronco way is no work on Sunday."

Bronco is not a reference to a mascot, in Wahoo land, but to the school's new head coach -- Bronco Mendenhall. Things are not off to a good start there, so times are a bit tense. Here is the overture:

The day after Virginia’s season-opening loss to Richmond, Ruffin McNeill, the team’s associate head coach and defensive line coach, did what he’s always done. He got up and went to work Sunday morning.
Problem was, when McNeill reached the McCue Center, home of Wahoo football, nobody was there. He went home, came back later, and nobody was there.
Cavaliers coach Bronco Mendenhall told everyone in the program that his philosophy has always been to take Sunday off during the season, and come back refreshed on Monday. McNeill didn’t believe it.
“Coach Ruff went back home and told his wife Erlene, they’re really not there,” Mendenhall chuckled during his weekly press conference on Monday. “He thought the BYU staff was just tricking him.”

So, gentle readers, why does this particular head coach not work on Sundays?

Did you catch that passing reference to "BYU"?

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What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

What does death feel like? The Atlantic gives readers some faith-free answers

The come-hither title “What It Feels Like to Die” admittedly drew my eyes to the top paragraph of this Atlantic article. Why? I had watched my father slowly die over a period of weeks this past June and it was quite eye-opening (and depressing) watching him slowly shut down. When he even lost interest in his beloved cats,  I knew the end was near.

As the article relates, dying people are in another world weeks before the final moments and they’re not talking about it much with us. Many sense a summons to pack it up here for the big move to the Beyond. As I read through the piece, however, I noticed a gap.

“Do you want to know what will happen as your body starts shutting down?”
My mother and I sat across from the hospice nurse in my parents’ Colorado home. It was 2005, and my mother had reached the end of treatments for metastatic breast cancer. A month or two earlier, she’d been able to take the dog for daily walks in the mountains and travel to Australia with my father. Now, she was weak, exhausted from the disease and chemotherapy and pain medication.  
My mother had been the one to decide, with her doctor’s blessing, to stop pursuing the dwindling chemo options, and she had been the one to ask her doctor to call hospice. Still, we weren’t prepared for the nurse’s question. My mother and I exchanged glances, a little shocked. But what we felt most was a sense of relief.
During six-and-a-half years of treatment, although my mother saw two general practitioners, six oncologists, a cardiologist, several radiation technicians, nurses at two chemotherapy facilities, and surgeons at three different clinics—not once, to my knowledge, had anyone talked to her about what would happen as she died.
There’s good reason. “Roughly from the last two weeks until the last breath, somewhere in that interval, people become too sick, or too drowsy, or too unconscious, to tell us what they’re experiencing,” says Margaret Campbell, a professor of nursing at Wayne State University who has worked in palliative care for decades.

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Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Religious 'ghosts' haunt coverage of hijab controversy at Georgia State

Muslim college student fights for her right to wear a hijab: good, controversial piece in the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

At least until you see that much of the article was drawn from the campus newspaper, the Georgia State Signal. And both stories are haunted by religious "ghosts" -- the omission of the faith-based objections underlying the student's protest.

You’ve no doubt read about hijab cases before, often about students or office workers. Nabila Khan's story is a more extreme case, an acid test for individual freedom: the niqab, which not only covers a woman's hair and neck, but envelops her face except for her eyes. 

So her story carries a greater punch, which the Constitution adroitly summarizes:

During her first week of school, a Muslim student was asked to remove her veil by a Georgia State University teacher. She refused.
Nabila Khan, a first-year student, is now at the center of a controversy about religious freedom.
She told The Signal, the school’s newspaper, that the teacher held her back after class and asked her not to conceal her face while in class, as was written in the syllabus. Khan refused, and said she believed being required to remove her niqab violated her rights to freedom of speech and religion.
Khan said in the article that she chooses to wear the niqab, which is a veil that covers all but the eyes, to work and school.
“Many people have this misconception that, as Muslim women, we’re oppressed or forced to wear it. For me, it’s a choice. My parents never forced me to wear it,” she said.

It's a compelling, counterintuitive treatment of a news story: the head covering not as a symbol of an oppressed gender, but as an individual religious choice. But how original? Have a look at the Signal's version:

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Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Back in the early 1990s, when I began teaching journalism and mass media full-time, I used to ask my Communications 101 students a simple question: How many of you grew up in a home in which your parents subscribed to a daily newspaper?

I also asked them how many televisions were in the homes in which they were raised, which yielding some shockingly high numbers.

I would say that, semester after semester, it was normal for about 75 percent of the entering mass-communications students in that particular Christian liberal arts institution to say that there was no daily newspaper in their homes. When I asked why that was the case, the most common answer was that their parents believed that their local newspaper couldn't be trusted because it leaned way to the left and offended their beliefs as traditional Christians.

Do the math. A student who was 18-19 years old in the early 1990s would be how old today? That would be 40-ish?

I thought of this when I was reading mainstream press materials about (1) that recent blast of dire Gallup Poll numbers (click here and then here for earlier GetReligion posts) about public trust in the news and (2) the growing awareness that elite journalists have given up pretending that they can cover Donald Trump and, more importantly, the views of supporters (many of them reluctant supporters), in a fair, balanced and accurate manner. On that second topic, see this conversation-starter of a piece at The Atlantic, with the headline, "The Death of 'He Said, She Said' Journalism."

All of this factored into this week's Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

As you would expect, we were still mulling over the ramifications of the Gallup numbers. Click here to see a Gallup executive summary of those stats. Here is the hook that drew some (but surprisingly muted) media coverage:

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The Satanic Temple comes to Salem and the Boston Globe does a puff piece

The Satanic Temple comes to Salem and the Boston Globe does a puff piece

Gotta love the new style of opinion journalism out there these days. Here we have articles that look like a news piece, present as news but are actually public relations.

Such is a recent piece in the Boston Globe about the Satanic Temple setting up shop in Salem, Mass., site of the 1692 witch trials. The Temple’s national headquarters is breaking local zoning regulations to move there, but that is brushed off. I’m not sure another house of worship –- or unworship –- could get away with that but, well, the devil is in these details.

When The Satanic Temple officially opens its doors on Friday, Salem will become home to the organization’s international headquarters.
But pitchfork-wielding mobs protesting the move seem unlikely, as the fire-and-brimstone theology of the Puritans who once populated the city has given way to a “live and let live” attitude in present day Salem.
Less than a mile from Gallows Hill -- the notorious spot where villagers executed more than a dozen people accused of witchcraft in the 1690s -- an 1882 Victorian on Bridge Street will serve as The Satanic Temple’s first physical headquarters, said Lucien Greaves, the temple’s spokesman.
“The history of Salem is also part of the history of Satanism,” Greaves said. “I feel that [Salem] is a very appropriate place for this” temple.
The Satanic Temple building, which is zoned as an art gallery, will open to the public with art installations, lectures and film screenings, said Greaves, a Cambridge resident.

Then comes the theology insert:

Dating back centuries, Satanism has been misunderstood by wide swaths of American society, Greaves said. Satanists do not worship an Antichrist, or any other deity. Rather, Satanism preaches independent thought and using evidence-based science as a basis for understanding the world, and views Satan as a literary figure representing an eternal struggle against authoritarianism.

Yes, the narrative of modern-day Satanism (at least in this case, with this circle of people) is that its followers are atheists who do not believe in the Judeo-Christian doctrine of Satan.

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In Bible Belt town split on immigration, passing glimpses of religious influence raise questions

In Bible Belt town split on immigration, passing glimpses of religious influence raise questions

As I mentioned in a recent post, Alabama ranks as the nation's second-most religious state after Mississippi, according to Gallup.

In a different post last year, I noted that Alabama's estimated 1.2 million Southern Baptists represent a quarter of the state's 4.8 million total residents. Overall, the state's number of evangelicals tops 2 million.

So yes, as I read an in-depth CNN story out today on an Alabama town split on immigration, I wondered what role faith would play in the text.

Here's the good news: The talented writer provides glimpses of religion that make it clear she understands its importance to the community.

Here's the bad news: Those glimpses are just that — glimpses. As in "a momentary or slight appearance," to quote one of the Dictionary.com definitions. More on those glimpses in a moment.

But first, some background: Overall, it's a nice story — fair and balanced on the immigration issue itself. The CNN piece even includes a scene where a resident watches headlines on Fox News, which made me chuckle. The journalist does an excellent job of interviewing a wide variety of sources, giving each a voice and helping her audience understand where everyone is coming from. 

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The life of Howard E. Butt, Jr.: What do most readers think 'evangelist' really means?

The life of Howard E. Butt, Jr.: What do most readers think 'evangelist' really means?

As many GetReligion readers may know, I grew up in Texas. One of the unfortunate side effects of my heritage is that I know more than my share of jokes about the family that built all of those H-E-B grocery stores that are a part of Lone Star state culture.

Yes, the patriarch of the family was named Howard E. Butt.

Butt was quite a man and, no matter what you may have heard, his daughters had perfectly normal names -- like Mary Elizabeth. The Butt family was known for many positive things, including the fact that under his leadership the H-E-B chain gave as much money to charities, year after year, as federal law would allow it to give.

This brings us to the second generation, led by Howard E. Butt, Jr., who died the other day. The Religion News Service obituary for this well known Texan opened like this:

(RNS) Howard E. Butt Jr., the Texas evangelist and radio personality who was expected to take over his family’s successful grocery business but instead devoted his life to Christian causes, has died. … He was 89.
Butt was the former head of the H.E. Butt Foundation, which takes as its mission “the renewal of the Church,” and runs retreat programs and a Christian camp for children. He was perhaps best known, though, as the fatherly voice of one-minute radio spots, called “The High Calling of Our Daily Work,” in which he gently preached that people should make Christianity the cornerstone of their life’s work.

Once again, we are dealing with a very strange use of the much-abused word “evangelist,” a topic that has been written about more than once here at GetReligion

The bottom line: There is no question that Butt was, like his father, an “evangelical.” But was he an “evangelist”? Does that word help readers understand this man's life work?

Be honest. When you read the word “evangelist,” what images appear in your mind? For some, they think of images like the movie clip at the top of this post As I wrote nearly a decade ago, concerning this term:

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