Jim Davis

New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

New persecution in Sudan: Religion News Service report leads mainstream media

"Courage is contagious," Billy Graham has said. "When a brave man takes a stand, the spines of others are often stiffened."

Whether from courage or just old-school nose for news, the Religion News Service deserves thanks and applause for its Wednesday story on a new round of persecution in Sudan.

Remember Meriam Yayha Ibrahim, the Sudanese woman who was jailed and threatened with death last year? Well, something like that is happening again: The government there has jailed two pastors, charging them with spying and, according to RNS, with "assault on religious belief."

In a way, it's even worse this time around. Ibrahim was accused of "apostasy," deserting the Islamic faith. Her counter-argument was that her mother raised her as a Christian and she never converted to the faith of her father. She won her case and was released in a month, then emigrated to the United States.

In the current case, neither the Rev. Michael Yat nor the Rev. Peter Yein Reith is accused of leaving Islam. At bottom, their arrests stem from the creation of South Sudan in 2011 after a long, brutal civil war. Both ministers are members of the South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church.

As RNS tells it:

Yat was arrested last year after visiting the Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church’s Bahri congregation in Khartoum, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, a charity that works on behalf of persecuted Christians.
The congregation had resisted the takeover of the church by a Muslim businessman, who had demolished part of the worship center.
In December, police beat and arrested 38 Christians for worshipping in the church.
With Yat’s arrest, South Sudan Presbyterian Evangelical Church sent Reith with a letter to the authorities to demand his release. He was arrested on Jan. 11.

RNS adds that since the creation of South Sudan, the northern nation "has forced out all foreign missionaries, raided churches and arrested and interrogated Christians on grounds that they belonged to South Sudan." So Yat's and Reith's case is an apparent blend of governmental paranoia and Sudan's militant form of Islam.

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Prayer, Franklin Graham, gay marriage: Washington Post runs a decent piece

Prayer, Franklin Graham, gay marriage: Washington Post runs a decent piece

However the Supreme Court rules on same-sex marriage, your rights -- a reader's rights to fair, untainted information -- are respected in a new Washington Post story.

The Post tells about on Franklin Graham urging prayer to change the minds of Supreme Court justices -- and it shows no obvious scorn and little slant:

During the same weekend that Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg presided over the wedding of a same-sex couple, evangelist Franklin Graham was writing a prayer to change her mind on same-sex marriage.
“As the Supreme Court continues to deliberate over the constitutionality of same-sex marriage,” Graham wrote in a Facebook message, “let’s pray that Justice Ginsburg’s eyes would be opened to the truth of Scripture and that she would not be deceived by the arguments of those who seek to impose their ‘new morality’ on our nation.”

The time peg, course, is the pair of cases about same-sex marriage being considered by the high court. One case asks whether gay marriage is a constitutional right. If they decide no, they’ll then judge the other case, on whether such marriages performed in one state must be recognized in every other state.

As the newspaper notes, the campaign shows that the conservative side still has some fight left in it:

As many conservative evangelical leaders work to anticipate the potential fallout from any decision from the court that would be unfavorable to their stance on the issue, Franklin Graham’s popular Facebook prayers are evidence that others believe the fight is hardly over, even as the case sits in the hands of the justices. A spokesman for Franklin Graham could not be immediately reached for comment.

The Post explains that Ginsburg is just one of several left-leaning judges for whom Graham is recommending prayers. She was singled out because she presided over that wedding in Washington on Sunday, specifying "the powers vested in her by the Constitution." That's according to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, cited by the Post.

But Graham is asking also for prayers for Justice Elana Kagan, who also seems to favor same-sex marriage. He asks for prayers for Justice Samuel Alito, who appears to oppose the practice, to "stand strong for what we know is God's unchanging truth." And he recommends praying that Justice Anthony Kennedy will "realize the folly" in changing the traditional definition of marriage.

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Ex-Muslims: The Guardian produces long indepth, yet leaves much unsaid

Ex-Muslims: The Guardian produces long indepth, yet leaves much unsaid

A furtive, fearful group -- Muslim unbelievers -- gets a massive, 3,200-word spotlight in The Guardian, with however mixed effectiveness. The indepth details the plight of people who are rejected by their families and communities, and sometimes threatened with death.

“If someone found out where I lived,” one Sulaiman Vali says, “they could burn my house down.” A woman, who gives only the pseudonym of Nasreen, adds that "it's almost normal now to get threats." And when a Kenya-born Muslim abandoned his faith, one of his brothers told him that "the penalty sharia law stipulates for apostasy is capital punishment," the Guardian says.

The process of radicalization has been studied extensively, the newspaper says, but it adds that those who leave Islam itself are hardly noticed:

Although it is fraught with human drama – existential crisis, philosophical doubt, family rupture, violent threats, communal expulsion, depression, and all manner of other problems – the apostate’s journey elicits remarkably little media interest or civic concern.
No one knows what numbers are involved, few understand the psychological difficulties individuals confront, or the social pressures they are compelled to resist. As with many other areas of communal discourse, insiders are reluctant to talk about it, and outsiders are either too incurious or sensitive to ask.

Actually, the Guardian does get a rough estimate of numbers with the Council of ex-Muslims of Britain, which says it advocates for some 350 people a year. The newspaper also interviews the leader of Faith to Faithless, a joint voice for former believers.

Although the Guardian doesn't try to say that every Muslim would kill someone who left the faith, it does bring up the hacking murder of a secular blogger in Bangladesh last week, the third in that nation thus far this year. "And in an era in which British Islamic extremists travel thousands of miles to kill those they deem unbelievers, an apostate’s concern for his or her security at home is perhaps understandable."

The the newspaper gives lots of room to the fears and accusations of its interviewees -- some of them fresh insights, some rather stale. Much of them -- a whopping 17 paragraphs! -- come from Nasreen, probably because she did an anthropological dissertation on "the ex-Muslim reality" for the University of London.

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Bill O'Reilly sounds off, and mainstream media rev up the distortion machine

Bill O'Reilly sounds off, and mainstream media rev up the distortion machine

Want an object lesson on how not to mix reporting and opinion? Just look at media reaction to Bill O'Reilly's take on the new Pew Research survey.

The survey, released on Tuesday, finds that American Christians are dwindling, especially Catholics and mainline Protestants. It says also that the "nones," or unaffiliated, have increased, as have non-Christian religions.

Whenever such studies come out, the pundits usually cast about for the "why," and O'Reilly of Fox News was no exception. In his "Talking Points" segment, he says:

There is no question that people of faith are being marginalized by a secular media and pernicious entertainment. The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behavior, and that sinks into the minds of some young people -- the group that is most likely to reject religion. Also, many movies and TV shows promote non-traditional values. If you are a person of faith, then the media generally thinks you are a loon.

He then launches a standard jeremiad about the decline of America, with "corruption" in the Catholic Church and the push to legalize drugs like heroin and cocaine. He unoriginally compares modern America with the Roman empire, saying both declined because their citizens shunned sacrifice for self-gratification.

He ends with a couple of clichés: "But it can be fixed if the electorate wakes up ... That's why the upcoming election is perhaps the most important in our lifetime."

So his sermonette has much to criticize. But as I've said often on GetReligion, criticism is one thing and coverage is another. Tell me what's going on, then tell me your opinions -- but in different stories, please.

Unfortunately, a fair-size segment of the media tried to tell you what to think of O'Reilly's views. And many of the reports pounced on his complaints about rap. Billboard, Huffington Post and the much-quoted Washington Post all spent most of their stories rebutting that one sentence from O'Reilly's comments.

Philip Bump, the Washington Post's political writer, gives a mere three paragraphs to O'Reilly's remarks, then most of the other 11 arguing with them. He points out how rappers like Snoop Dogg and Kendrick Lamar have cleaned up their acts.

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Remembering Jim Jones: Star-Telegram does thoughtful obit on its longtime Godbeat writer

Remembering Jim Jones: Star-Telegram does thoughtful obit on its longtime Godbeat writer

"Absolute integrity."

"He brought no spin."

"Jim always tried to present both sides."

Every reporter would value those kinds of accolades in his obit. But especially, perhaps, in Jim Jones' specialty of religion news, a beat laced with minefields.

Jim served for 22 years on the godbeat at the Star-Telegram in Fort Worth, then freelanced in the same specialty until his death last week at 79. Its obit on him is warm, thoughtful and instructive on the career of someone who did it right.

I didn't know Jim well, but I crossed paths with him now and then in my own job as religion editor for the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel.  He was a tall, lanky, mannerly Texan who would have fit well on the set of a 1950s western movie.

I saw him also as a friendly, moderate man with an extreme eye for detail. When we shared a media tour of Jordan in 2000, he wasn't content with writing that Pope John Paul II arrived with a military jet escort; he asked what kinds of jets they were.

And by the 11 quoted sources in the Star-Telegram obit -- family, sources, colleagues, longtime friends -- many others saw him the same way.

"He was a great, solid reporter and a prince of a guy to be around," says Toby Druin, the retired editor of the Texas-based Baptist Standard. "He brought no spin."

Says Russell Dilday, former president of the Southern Baptist Convention: "I think Jim always tried to keep his partiality out of his reporting. He had convictions. He had his own ideas, but he wanted to report fairly."

The obit runs an amazing 1,700 words -- amazing when many lede articles are shorter than that. And in the many details on Jim's life, it shows that it deserves the length.

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Daily Beast's recipe for Rubio story: Extra snide, easy on the facts

Daily Beast's recipe for Rubio story: Extra snide, easy on the facts

I thought of my mother when I read this article about Sen. Marco Rubio in The Daily Beast. And not just because yesterday was Mother's Day. It was because of her skill in starting with leftovers and serving up soups and stews.

But that's where the similarity ends. The Beast's food stock is scorn for Rubio's idea to have "family-friendly" films and TV shows made in Florida. The result is a shapeless mélange, steeped in a thin broth of sarcasm.

Tax breaks for producers to make G and PG movies in Florida is one of 100 ideas Rubio hatched while he was speaker of the Florida house. The snide headline: "Marco Rubio’s Plan to Build a Holy Hollywood in Florida."

Before senator and Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio wanted to transform the country, he had a more modest dream: to transform Florida into Hollywood—but with morals!  
In 2006, when Rubio was speaker of the Florida House of Representatives, he released a book, 100 Innovative Ideas for Florida’s Future, that featured within its inspired pages 100 ideas Rubio compiled during town hall-like meetings that he cleverly labeled “Idearaisers.”
The book is supposedly about “how every Floridian can enjoy freedom, opportunity, and the pursuit of happiness and leave for their children a better life than their own,” but there is a caveat: Rubio wanted Floridians who were in the entertainment industry to enjoy their freedom, opportunity, and pursuit of happiness in a “family friendly” way. 

The newspaper correctly quotes the idea: "Florida should create a tax incentive program aimed at attracting more film productions and TV series to the state, with a priority given to those productions that are given ‘family-friendly’ ratings such as G or PG."

Writer Olivia Nuzzi then tee-hees over the fact that there is a City of Hollywood in Florida. Here is how she describes it:

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Sad Mother's Day feature by RNS deals gingerly with spiritual issues

Sad Mother's Day feature by RNS deals gingerly with spiritual issues

For Mother's Day, the Religion News Service this week ran a remarkably sensitive piece on a memorial garden for mothers of deceased babies.

The feature poignantly tells of their grief and their need for closure. It looks also at religious and spiritual sensibilities, at least for Catholics.

An RNS reporter looks in on Most Holy Redeemer Cemetery, near Albany, N.Y., built for mothers of miscarried, stillborn and short-lived infants. For some of the women -- like Dorothy Caruso, who lost her child back in 1968 -- it's the first time some of them get to mourn their children:

Most Holy Redeemer’s Remembrance Garden honors the youngest of lost lives, and comforts young, recently bereaved parents. But its creation two years ago was inspired by an earlier generation of mourners.
Like Caruso, these mothers never had an opportunity to grieve for their lost children; some never even had a say in what would happen to their remains. 

You may shake your head in disbelief when you read about the four mothers profiled in this story. They named their children; Caruso bought clothes and toys for hers. Then the children died as infants.

Worse was what happened after that. Caruso watched in shock as a nurse casually tossed her stillborn child in a garbage can. Another asked a nurse to take care of the baby's remains -- a decision she still regrets, seven decades later. Still another is troubled that she didn't name two of her three deceased sons, and doesn't know their final resting places.

Even worse, no one else seemed to want to remember the children. They assumed the mothers didn't want to dwell on the grief. Yet the grief stayed -- for decades.

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The Oklahoman writes up a successful coach, but edges away from his beliefs

The Oklahoman writes up a successful coach, but edges away from his beliefs

As a sports profile, The Oklahoman's story on softball coach Phil McSpadden is seasoned and smoothly written. But in GetReligion terms of religious "ghosts," the story is as spectral as they come.

McSpadden, a coach at Oklahoma City University, has turned the tame sport of girls' softball into a hard-hitting, competitive sport -- and with more than 1,475 games, has become the "all-time winningest coach in the history of college softball," The Oklahoman says.

The newspaper chronicles his rise: a degree from Oral Roberts University, a string of baseball jobs at high schools, his philosophy of coaching, his hard-nosed transformation of the girls' team at OCU -- a shift that shocked other teams in the 1990s, but is now widely emulated.

The Oklahoman has all that covered. But along the way, it drops a few hints about a deeper level to McSpadden -- hints that it never develops.

Here are some clues:

* McSpadden turns down OCU's first offer, but they ask again a week later. "Maybe God’s trying to tell me something," he says.

* After winning four consecutive titles, McSpadden considers leaving coaching: "By man’s standard, I’m successful," he thought, "but am I doing anything significant?"

* He stays in coaching after hearing from the father of one of his former players. "I just want to tell you," he told the coach, "my daughter wouldn’t be a Christian if not for you."

* When panhandlers approach, says The Oklahoman, "Chances are good, he will give them money."

* McSpadden admits he may "cuss." However, "The Lord’s name won’t be taken in vain or anything like that."

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Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Controversy over Serra sainthood: Not all media settle for reporting

Ever hear people arguing past each other? Each makes seemingly good points, but doesn't answer those raised by the other.

If they only had someone -- oh, like a reporter, for instance -- to put some questions to them. Then, they could understand each other, and the rest of us could understand them both.

Mainstream media fill that function -- partly -- with the fallout over Pope Francis' speech about Junipero Serra this past weekend. Francis praised the 18th century California missionary, scheduled for sainthood in September, as a "founding father" of American religion. Reporters also looked up historians and Indians who branded his work genocidal.

But how the articles treat and background the speech varies vastly.

For some reason, the Associated Press ran two stories on the topic, and on the same day -- Saturday. One is AP's typical overly brief item that raises more questions than it answers.

That story first has Pope Francis praising Serra's "zeal"; then it quotes a native American leader who says the missionary "enslaved converts" and tried to destroy Indian culture. Here's the run-on lede:

Pope Francis on Saturday praised the zeal of an 18th-century Franciscan missionary he will make a saint when he visits the United States this fall but whom Native Americans say brutally converted indigenous people to Christianity.

AP then quotes Ron Andrade, who fires several salvos like:

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