Jim Davis

Global religious freedom: Watchdog is threatened, and only religious media notice

Global religious freedom: Watchdog is threatened, and only religious media notice

It's a definite "Got News?" item when religious news outfits report the appeal of a major human rights watchdog to stay alive -- and almost no one else notices.

World magazine and Baptist Press this week wrote up a letter signed by 86 religious liberty advocate surging Congress to reauthorize the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. USCIRF, a semi-official organization that monitors how nations treat those of various faiths, was born by an act of Congress in 1998, but its mandate runs out on Sept. 30.

Both stories are spot-on in highlighting the need for such a voice. USCIRF is the group that releases an annual report on the state of religious freedom worldwide, red-lighting "Countries of Particular Concern." The reports, and interim statements, are often quoted in media reports on human rights.

The story by World, an evangelical newsmagazine, is the more political of the two:

WASHINGTON—A coalition of international religious freedom groups is urging the Senate to approve a six-year reauthorization for the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) and reject attempts to cripple the organization.
Eighty-six partners of the International Religious Freedom Roundtable this week delivered a letter to the top Republican and Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which currently is weighing two drastically different visions for USCIRF. The letter noted the authors agree on “very little” theologically, but they agree religious freedom strengthens cultures, stabilizes democracies, and is “the ultimate counter-terrorism weapon.”
“The most effective way to ensure the continuity of USCIRF’s essential mandate to protect and promote religious freedom worldwide is for the Senate to pass, in a timely fashion, S. 1798,” the groups wrote to Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., the Foreign Relations chairman, and Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., the ranking member.

World's article also does us the service of linking to the International Religious Freedom Roundtable letter itself. And World identifies who filed S. 1798: Sen. Marco Rubio, a Republican candidate for president.

The Baptist Press version stars Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, part of the Southern Baptist Convention -- saying he "and his allies" with the Roundtable put out the letter:

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Papal souvenirs get a light-hearted look from the Washington Post

Papal souvenirs get a light-hearted look from the Washington Post

To this day, I regret something I didn't do in 1987. No, not some job choice or stock purchase. It was when I covered the U.S. tour of Pope John Paul II, and didn't buy one of those souvenir T-shirts with three faces: George, John Paul and Ringo.

Fortunately, for me and a new generation of pope-biliaphiles, a new crop awaits in the northeast U.S., where Pope Francis plans to visit in September. The Washington Post surveys the market in a sweeping, good-natured feature.

As the Post notes, the T-shirts, bobbleheads, keychains and more bizarre items have become a standard feature of papal tours; in 1987, I even saw ads for a John Paul lawn sprinkler, with water spraying from his hands. Such things are writ large again for the upcoming visit of Francis.

The newspaper surveys the dizzying array of items being churned out -- from jerseys to holy water bottles to "Papal Pleasure" beer to a toaster that burns Francis' face into bread.

I know from experience that it takes a light touch to make such stories work. You want to convey the silliness and excess, yet keep a respect for the devotion of the people who buy the stuff -- and some of those who make it. And the Post pulls it off, right from the lede:

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Commercialized cathedrals? Telegraph story has much to Compline about

Commercialized cathedrals? Telegraph story has much to Compline about

People are flocking again to England's grand old cathedrals, and the Telegraph says it knows why: The churches have adopted tactics from the world of retail.

Attendance is sliding at most U.K. parishes but rising at cathedrals, says the newspaper -- more than 10 million last year, up almost a quarter in a decade, says the Telegraph. The churches still boast their historic appeals, the article concedes, but they're also trying new things:

Cathedral clerics say people are often drawn by the traditional music, the contemplative atmosphere and the fact that large city-centre churches offer services at different times of the day and throughout the week.
But several cathedrals have benefited from moves to attract late-night shoppers by opening late themselves.

Like how? Prepare to be amazed, or not:

St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle upon Tyne, has introduced a “night church” idea, opening late on Fridays and inviting people to experience stillness and contemplation.
It also regularly attracts around 300 people for late night compline services.
Salisbury Cathedral has been offering late night classical concerts by candle-light during the summer and Liverpool Cathedral opens its tower late on Thursday evenings.

Not convinced? How about Truro Cathedral? Last Christmas the church "offered its own late night shopping, setting up charity stalls and opening its own Christmas shop and restaurant late, while inviting community music groups to play to lure shoppers in." As if churches have never done anything like that. Try googling "church bazaar" and "church night concert" and you'll find out differently.

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Reuters reports Ashley Madison hack, but shrugs off moral and biblical issues

Reuters reports Ashley Madison hack, but shrugs off moral and biblical issues

With its story on the hack attack on adultery website Ashley Madison, Reuters stumbles a couple of times onto biblical references. But no worries -- it jumps up, brushes itself off and hurries on.

Ashley Madison, as you may know by now, is for "discreet" hookups for married people -- i.e., Web-assisted affairs. On Tuesday, a shadowy group calling itself the Impact Team cracked the site and stole the info of perhaps 37 million customers -- "nude photos, sexual fantasies, real names and credit card information," Reuters says. Then it uploaded the data on the Internet.

The potential is explosive, if you consider the 37 million relationships that could be disrupted. It's even worse when you read that thousands of e-mail addresses belonged to "U.S. government officials, UK civil servants and high-level executives," plus academics at the likes of Yale and Harvard. The sheer bulk of the 43 million-plus news, blog and opinion pieces also testifies to the size of this religio-moral matter.

Unless you're Reuters, that is. The 900-word story quotes a paltry four sources, one of them unnamed, and none of them a minister, social ethicist or moral theologian. Instead, we get a divorce lawyer, two government folks and two therapists. I guess the latter are supposed to be the stand-ins for clergy.

Here's the first near-Bible experience in the Reuters article:

Prominent divorce lawyer Raoul Felder said the release is the best thing to happen to his profession since the seventh Commandment forbade adultery in the Bible.
"I've never had anything like this before," he said.

Even that bare mention was born as a gaffe. One of GR's readers told us the article originally said "Seventh Amendment," not "Seventh Commandment," then was corrected. Not the best evidence for the scriptural savvy of one of the world's largest news agencies.

Reuters misses another biblical reference in quoting a psychologist:

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Jihadi girl power: New York Times tells how teens were seduced by ISIS

Jihadi girl power: New York Times tells how teens were seduced by ISIS

It reads almost like a Greek tragedy when a New York Times newsfeature tells of three teens who suddenly left their homes in the United Kingdom for the Syria-based Islamic State.

In starting with the ending, the Times makes it seem chillingly inevitable. But with its incredibly lengthy, 6,000-word narrative, the paper shows how the girls might have been stopped. Yes, apparently religion plays a role in this. Shocking.

Khadiza Sultana, Shamima Begum and Amira Abase are, of course, only three of the estimated 550 girls and women who leave western nations for the ruthless jihadi territory. And other mainstream media have dealt with the topic before, like a searing piece in The Guardian last October.

But for its telling details and the anatomy of the girls' radicalization, this Times feature stands out. It does have a few places for improvement, but we'll get to that later.

Mustering two writers and two researchers for this article, the article blends narrative with analysis, personal details with an attempt at the whys. It quotes educators, activists and family members. It reveals how the girls' school and police failed their families.

And it shows how they and other jihadi women can affect the rest of us:

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Pope Francis and abuse victims: Washington Post pro shows how to report

Pope Francis and abuse victims: Washington Post pro shows how to report

To harp on a favorite theme of mine, you need experienced specialists to cover religion news. Today's case in point is a positive one: the Washington Post's in-depth piece on Catholics who want Pope Francis to address clerical sex abuse during his upcoming U.S. visit.

Rather than relying cheap shots from pressure groups, the Post's Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein draws her sources from Catholic authorities or those who have had direct experience with the abuse problem -- some as victims. Their viewpoints range from support to opposition, and the usually neglected points in between.

In the 1,800-word article, victims of priests confess their hopes of pressing a single point to Francis during his September visit to Philadelphia: Do more to root out sex abuse and bring justice to the abused. But the piece adopts an attitude that is not skeptical but adversarial.

The Post gives about half the story to John Salveson, an abuse survivor who has been pressing church authorities for answers off and on since the early 1980s. It reports Salveson's initial letters to his bishop, which got non-answers; then his part in a class-action lawsuit against his diocese, which failed because of a statute of limitations; then his creation of a pressure group, "which advocates for longer criminal statutes of limitations and expanded civil windows for victims to sue."

The article also quotes others, in varying tones of rage and hope.

For rage, we have the father of a deceased victim: "All he does is talk. . . . You think this guy ever worked a day in his life? How could he have empathy for people like us?”  

For hope, another victim: “I think he’s a rock star. He really seems to be someone who genuinely seems to want to get to the bottom of this and stop it.”

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New film looks at prayer, but RNS advance feature mainly sees racial issues

New film looks at prayer, but RNS advance feature mainly sees racial issues

A bold new movie on the power of prayer to heal relationships rightly gets a sizable feature from Religion News Service. But what does RNS fixate on? The color of the cast.

War Room, due out Aug. 28, follows "a flood of faith films starring white actors" last year, says the article. It "arrives at a time when racial tensions in America have intensified as a result of police brutality cases and the racially motivated slaying of black worshippers by a white shooter in Charleston, S.C." And its main actor, T.C. Stallings, says he took the role "because of the positive picture it paints of the African-American family."

And what's the plot of the film? Well, the article never quite gets around to that, despite the 800-word count.

Much of the story quotes Stallings, who tells of his own disadvantaged upbringing in Cleveland, then gives his views on how Hollywood treats urban African Americans:

“What I saw on TV and in movies growing up was all negative. The picture of African-Americans in urban areas was all bad language and bad credit scores and bad habits,” Stallings said. “There were many upstanding, Christian black families in the world, and they needed to be talked about as well.”
Stallings rejected the black family stereotype he was seeing, graduating from high school and college. Today, he resides in California with his wife and two children, whom Stallings helps home-school.
“There are many people out there — white and black — who stay with their families and work through their problems. They aren’t thugs or gang leaders,” He said. “’War Room’ tells the truth about society by showing the reverse of that stereotype.”

Sure, valid views, and he has a right to give them. But six paragraphs worth? And his thesis would have been more solid if the producers, Alex and Stephen Kendrick, had confirmed it. The most for which RNS quotes them is a vague statement from Alex: “There is an element to the way we tell this story that has power and desperation that would be different if we tried to tell it any other way." Howso? Doesn't say.

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Transgender minister nun gets sympathy piece (aka propaganda) from RNS

Transgender minister nun gets sympathy piece (aka propaganda) from RNS

Same-sex marriage advocates won the day in court, but groups like the Religion News Service have no lack of causes to fight for -- like a nun who ministers to transgender people.

Yes, RNS is fighting for this cause: The story is propaganda thinly posing as a sympathetic profile. It sets up Sister Monica as something like a deep-cover agent for an insurgency.

Think I'm exaggerating? Have a look:

She doesn’t want to reveal the name of the town where she lives, the name of her Catholic order or her real name.
Sister Monica lives in hiding, so that others may live in plain sight.
Now in her early 70s and semiretired because of health problems, she remains committed to her singular calling for the past 16 years: ministering to transgender people and helping them come out of the shadows.
"Many transgender people have been told there’s something wrong with them," she said. "They have come to believe that they cannot be true to themselves and be true to God. But there is no way we can pray, or be in communion with God, except in the truth of who we are."

According to the profile, Sister Monica calls, visits, e-mails and Skypes with transgender people. What she does isn't really spelled out, besides vague phrases of "unflinching love and support" and "pushing her friends to be honest about themselves and their relationships."

Granted, transgender people are becoming more active, including in church circles. A large group of gay and transgender Catholics wants to meet Pope Francis during his September visit to Philadelphia. And about 14 families with gay or transgender members plan to attend the World Meeting of Families, also in Philadelphia.

So sure, the ball is rolling. But it's one thing to report the roll; it's another to push it along.

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Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

Atheist minister fights for credentials; are media fighting not to cover it?

You can tell it's Canada when a minister comes out as atheist, and mainstream media simply nod and report it. In the United States, we'd be reading and hearing ferocious barrages of rhetoric.

Which is not to say that the Canadian coverage of issues surrounding the Rev. Gretta Vosper has been fair or complete.

The basic facts, according to media accounts: Vosper pastors a Toronto congregation in the United Church of Canada. She joined her current church in 1997, then began teaching atheist beliefs around 2001.  Her congregation backed her until 2008, when she stopped reciting the Lord's Prayer. Then 100 of the 150 members left.

This year, Vosper objected to a prayer written by the denomination's spiritual leader (the articles don’t name him/her) in regard to the massacre at Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris. Vosper said the prayer should have added that "belief in God could trigger enthusiasm," according to the Canadian Press wire service.

That got the attention of the Rev. David Allen, head of the denomination's Toronto Conference, who asked headquarters about determining Vosper's "fitness to be a minister." Now, the matter appears headed to a church court this fall.

Much of the coverage cites Canadian Press, which has also produced the longest account and done the most multisourcing thus far. For one, its 600-word piece quotes Vosper extensively:

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