Education

Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?

Liberty University and all those Pell Grants: Is this a topic for news or opinion?

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have developed some logos to signal to readers that there are certain types of stories that we critique over and over and over. No, we haven't created a Kellerism logo yet, but who knows?

The "Got news?" logo us used when we see a really interesting news story in alternative media and, as veteran reporters, we think to ourselves, "Why the heck isn't anyone in the mainstream press covering that interesting (and in some cases major) story?"

Then there is the logo out front on this post, which says, "What is this?" If you read news online, you know that we are in an age in which the lines between hard news and commentary are getting thinner and thinner. Frequently, I see pieces marked "analysis" that contain far more clear attributions and sources than in "hard news" stories elsewhere. We regularly see "news" features that, a decade ago, would have been featured on op-ed pages.

Then there is the whole issue of hard-news reporters writing "objective" stories and then turning around and firing away on Twitter with edgy comments that would make an editorial-page editor blush. The goal, for many reporters, is to build an online "brand" and one way you do that is by telling readers what you really think.

Then there is that other nasty equation looming in the background during these financially troubled times in the journalism. You know the one: Opinion is cheep; information is expensive.

This brings me to a really interesting "Acts of Faith" piece at The Washington Post that ran under this headline: "Liberty University, a hub of conservative politics, owes rapid growth to federal student loans."

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NPR offers listeners shallow mishmash about Christian universities and same-sex marriage

NPR offers listeners shallow mishmash about Christian universities and same-sex marriage

It’s been more than three weeks since the historic Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage nationwide and it appears that  NPR has finally gotten around to asking how Christian colleges are going to react to this.

Other media were asking this question even before the June 26 ruling, so it’s well-trodden ground. It's a rich mother lode of article possibilities, as religious colleges are the low-hanging fruit in the Supreme Court decision. They are not churches, so they don't come under certain protections that houses of worship would have.

So with plenty of time to prepare a decent story, NPR could have come out with a well-thought-out look at the issue, much like this recent story in the Atlantic Monthly. Instead, the show produced four and one-half minutes that didn’t even manage to stay on topic. Here’s how their broadcast started:

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: Some of the uproar over the Supreme Court's marriage ruling is misplaced. Ministers will not be forced to marry same-sex couples, and churches will not be forced to accommodate same-sex weddings. But what about schools? Union University in Tennessee prohibits sexual activities that fall outside a marriage covenant between a man and a woman. That applies to staff as well as students, and Samuel Oliver, Union's president says it dictates, for example, which employees qualify for marriage benefits.
SAMUEL OLIVER: We don't offer benefits to same-sex partners because having that same-sex partner would be a violation of our behavioral code.

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New York Times (reluctantly) admits that 'some' courts are backing HHS mandate

New York Times (reluctantly) admits that 'some' courts are backing HHS mandate

As you GetReligionistas have repeatedly stressed in recent years, the battles over the Health and Human Services contraceptives mandate is not a simple story involving two levels of conflict, with churches and religious groups being granted an clear exemption and for-profit corporations over on the losing side of the religious-liberty equation.

As this battle has continued in the courts, things have only grown more complex -- both for the Obama White House and the journalists who cover it.

For starters, there was that whole Hobby Lobby ruling and the fine-tuning in the regulations that has taken place since then. Meanwhile, the really interesting legal wars have focused on doctrinally-defined schools, ministries and parachurch groups that are caught in the middle. This is where things get really complicated and, frankly, many journalists do not seem to understand what all of the fuss is about.

In news reports, journalists continue to describe a wave of court victories for the White House -- while having to admit that there are religious groups who don't see things that way. A new story in The New York Times offers a classic example of this struggle to frame the debate:

WASHINGTON -- Four federal appeals courts have upheld efforts by the Obama administration to guarantee access to free birth control for women, suggesting that the government may have found a way to circumvent religious organizations that refuse to provide coverage for some or all forms of contraception.
While pleased with the rulings, administration officials are not celebrating.

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Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

The vast majority of the time, GetReligion features critiques -- positive and negative -- of mainstream press coverage of religion news. However, in recent years we have started adding some other features by veteran religion-beat specialists Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin that address Godbeat work in short features that we think will be of interest to people who care about domestic and international trends in religion -- period -- or who are professionals on the beat.

In the "Religion Guy Memo," for example, I have asked Ostling to serve as kind of Metro desk sage, a veteran editor talking about issues related to the beat the way an editor might chat with a religion-beat scribe over a cup of coffee. As any reporter knows, a good editor helps you discern what stories "have legs" and what stories may be just over the horizon.

That is what Rifkin is doing in "Global Wire," as well, focusing on questions raised by recent events around the world or, on occasion, trying to spot slow developing stories that may be on the rise, or those that are about to pop into the open.

On weekends, I also like to share what I call "think pieces" -- links to pieces about developments on the beat or essays by religion insiders who are clearly trying to discern what will happen in the news in the near or distant future. All reporters have writers and thinkers that they follow online, seeking clues about future stories. Think Pew Forum folks. Think John C. Green of the University of Akron. For decades, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago was THE go-to brain for religion-beat pros. I mean, the man answered his own telephone!

You don't have to agree with this kind of insider in order to draw information from them. The key is that they have some unique insight into developments within specific religious communities. They can read the spiritual weather forecasts, in other words. It also helps if they speak common English, instead of inside-baseball jargon.

So with that in mind, please consider this new essay about a topic that -- for obvious reasons -- is of great interest to me as a writer and as a teacher. That would be trends in Christian higher education in the wake of the recent 5-4 Obergefell decision on gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Post-Supremes debate begins: Freedom to 'teach' faith or 'free exercise' of religious beliefs?

Once again, I was on the road when all heckfire broke out on the religion-news beat, leaving other GetReligionistas to dive into the breach after the U.S. Supreme Court's long-predicted 5-4 decision -- complete with majority opinion sermon from Justice Anthony Kennedy -- approving same-sex marriage from coast to coast.

Much of the coverage was a celebratory as one could have expected in this post-Kellerism age, especially in the broadcast news coverage.

Click here for an online summary of that from the conservative Media Research Center which, to its credit, offered readers transcripts of some of the broadcast items so they could read the scripts for themselves and look for signs of journalistic virtues such as fairness and balance. A sign of things to come? Among the major networks, the most balanced presentations on this story were at NBC. Will that draw protests to NBC leaders?

At the time of the ruling, I was attending a meeting that included some lawyers linked to Christian higher education, one of the crucial battleground areas in American life in the wake of this ruling. There, and online, it quickly became apparent that the key to the decision -- in terms of religious liberty -- is whether one accepts Kennedy's general, not-very-specific acceptance of First Amendment freedoms linked to religion or whether, along with Chief Justice John Roberts, one noted that Kennedy left unsaid.

Journalists must note this, if they want to prepare for the next round of battles in -- as described in previous coverage of the HHS mandate wars -- the tense church-state territory located between the secular market place and actual religious sanctuaries. That middle ground? Voluntary associations that are defined by stated doctrines, while interacting with public life to one degree or another. Think colleges, schools, hospitals, day-care centers, parachurch ministries, adoption agencies that have, for students and staffs, doctrinal covenants that define their common lives and teachings.

Think Little Sisters of the Poor. Think Gordon College.

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An important new Jewish resource, with something important missing

An important new Jewish resource, with something important missing

In a poignant New York Times Book Review piece, Leon Wieseltier said our hyper-networked culture creates journalism "in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability." And yet the Religion Guy insists that those covering our complex field must write on reflective, bookish themes, and thus passes along three tips that helped his career: obtaining a master's degree in religion (slogging through night classes while working full-time), trying to read a book per week, and investing in key reference works not available in newsrooms.
 
On the third point, note the valuable second edition of "The Jewish Study Bible" from Oxford University Press, which is about all you need to know given that publisher's reputation.

Why did a rewrite seem necessary a mere 10 years after the acclaimed first edition? The preface explains that Bible scholarship is "ever-changing." All 24 essays on Bible interpretation are new or revised, as are many annotations printed alongside the Jewish Publication Society's 1999 Bible text.
 
Chief editors Adele Berlin (University of Maryland) and Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis University) report that "Jewish participation in mainstream biblical scholarship" with its "critical approaches" only really took off in the 1960s. They say even during this past decade Jews have become more sophisticated about "how the Bible came to be," the "many voices reflected (or suppressed)" in Scripture, and what later editors "imposed on" prior biblical materials.

The new edition shows journalists the ways liberal Protestant and secular thought is reshaping Judaism.

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Ain't-A That Good News? Historic African-American sanctuary now museum — period

Ain't-A That Good News? Historic African-American sanctuary now museum — period

It's kind of hard to write a story about a people restoring a church without talking much about religion, but the editors at the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- for a few more days -- managed to pull it off.

Of course, the whole idea of this Baltimore Sun report is that this particular historic church is now being turned into a museum, yet the story makes it clear that the worship space is being restored to his previous state, or close to it. So this raises -- at least for me -- a question: Will this be enforced as a secular space or, from time to time, might people in African-American churches (or anyone else, come to think of it) be able to use it for rites that link them to, well, the cloud of witnesses in this place?

The overture makes at least two references to this facility as a worship space, using terms linked to church life:

Summer sun streaming through large windows into the small chapel illuminates panel walls lined with black-and-white, poster-sized photographs of African-American life over the years.
The small, airy room is empty of pews for now, but there's a podium from which to preach God's word.

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The atonement debates: Why did Jesus Christ 'die for our sins'?

The atonement debates: Why did Jesus Christ 'die for our sins'?

JOHN’S QUESTION:

I understand there is currently a debate between orthodox and progressive theologians on the doctrine of the atonement. I always considered this a cornerstone of Christian theology. Can you encapsulate the arguments?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

A tough one, and this mere journalist has long pondered how to reply. Tough because the meaning of Jesus’ crucifixion stands right at the heart of the Christian faith -- indeed the cross is its universal symbol -- and so is vitally important, sensitive,  a highly complex concern of many great minds the past 2,000 years, and ultimately beyond human comprehension. But here’s a rough attempt at an answer.

Like many people, Christians see the reality of good and evil, believe this awareness tells us God is holy, seek to live morally, yet admit they fall short due to an inherent sinfulness in themselves and humanity in general. Theologians call this “original sin.” Finally, they believe  Jesus’ agonizing death by crucifixion somehow overcame humanity’s sin problem and offers salvation.

That belief originated with the Bible. Jesus himself said the Son of Man came “to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45, Matthew 20:28), and that the Christ should suffer and “repentance and forgiveness should be preached in his name to all nations” (Luke 24:46-47).

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Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

Billings, Mont., Gazette needs to pose more questions about dinosaur museum imbroglio

There’s a lot of religion out in America’s rural precincts, far from the big news zip codes that really matter, but sometimes it's hard to get decent coverage.

Here’s a piece about public school children in northeast Montana who’ve had an annual field trip for several years to a museum that espouses a creationist perspective. Then someone anonymously complains -- apparently not to the school itself but to an out-of-state group that has the legal chops to make things unpleasant if it so wants to -- and said group threatens the local school district. Judging from the tone of this piece, the local reporter is not familiar with Americans United for Separation of Church and State but those of us who’ve covered religion out of Washington DC know them quite well. They have a nice suite of offices on Capitol Hill and they can be intimidating.

Here’s what happened:

Glendive third-graders will no longer visit their town's creationist museum amid concerns that the annual school trip to learn about dinosaurs violates the constitutional separation of church and state.
School district administrators had authorized this year's field trip to the Glendive Dinosaur and Fossil Museum but reversed course last week after receiving a letter from a Washington, D.C., advocacy group calling the school-sponsored event illegal. Their decision dashed the hopes of many of the children, some parents said.

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