Ethics

Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

Telling you what to think: Tampa Bay Times cranks up crusade on Christian clubs in schools

It's an increasingly common habit -- a bad one -- to mix news with commentary. But the Tampa Bay Times yesterday was especially blatant, starting with the headline: "What about the coaches?"

The article is the third in less than a week on Christian clubs like Young Life, First Priority and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and their activities in public schools. The Times pretty agrees with the Freedom From Religion Foundation's complaint to Hillsborough County Public Schools: Adults were evangelizing on campus through the clubs, thus breaching the constitutional separation of church and state; and school officials, including coaches, were letting them. Also, a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes had two misdemeanor convictions on his record.

All of that is more than fair game for a newspaper to check out. And in fairness, it talked to David Gaskill of FCA, in a story on Thursday. That’s an improvement over January, when the Times talked to the accusers but none of the defenders.  

But it's hard to read yesterday's story as anything more than a j'accuse, when it starts with:

A complaint alleging illegal activities on the part of a representative of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes did not just point the finger at self-styled campus minister David Gaskill.
It also named -- sometimes with photographic evidence -- coaches who either invited Gaskill to lead the students in prayer or participated with them. Those named in the complaint include Freedom High School football coaches Todd Donahoe and Cedric Smith; Tampa Bay Technical High School wrestling coach Edward Bayonet, Freedom girls basketball coach Laura Pacholke, Wharton High School wrestling coach David Mitchell and Middleton High School baseball coach Jim Macaluso.
Will the district investigate these coaches too?

The article gives the answer immediately: "They will not." Instead, they and other school employees who work with volunteers will get training on adherence to the First Amendment. A school board member adds that FFRF is "very happy with the district's response."  So why were the coaches the focus of the lede? Is this something like gospel shaming? (And why didn’t the Times ask FFRF if they really are satisfied?)

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After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

After the hate-cake blitz: It may be time for reporters to visit the Church of Open Doors

Let's pause, for a moment, and set aside in-depth discussions of Whole Foods security-camera footage and the strategic location of UPC labels.

Ditto for the zoomed-in analysis of high-definition photos that may show clashing colors in cake icing and the width of the letters on top of what is currently America's most controversial "Love Wins" cake.

There is also the irony that this story is unfolding in the people's republic of Austin, which is both the official capital of the state of Texas and the proudly weird Mecca of folks who want to live in Texas, without really living in Texas.

What I want to do is meditate, for a moment, on the difficulty of covering totally independent, nondenominational churches. During the blitz of hate-cake coverage yesterday, very few journalists paused to ask any questions about the Austin pastor at the center of this controversy and his "church plant," the Church of Open Doors.

One of the convenient things about covering large religious institutions, and religious denominations in particular, is that they offer reporters a chance to verify key facts when a minister and/or a congregation hits the headlines, for positive or negative reasons.

This basic reporting work is harder to do with independent congregations (and there are thousands of them and that number is rising all the time). Right now, it's clear that hardly anyone knows much of anything about the Rev. Jordan Brown and his flock. And let me ask again: Why do so many journalists decline to use the normal Associated Press style -- "the Rev." -- when dealing with African-American pastors?

There is Facebook, of course, where one can learn, in addition to the fact that 27 people have visited, that the church's slogan is: "We've taken tradition and religious doctrine and thrown them out the window."

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Washington Post follows trail of Donald Trump's charitable giving everywhere -- almost

Washington Post follows trail of Donald Trump's charitable giving everywhere -- almost

Frequent consumers of mainstream news may recall that Citizen Donald Trump traveled to Liberty University back in January to deliver one of his fire-from-the-hip speeches in his White House campaign. This was the Two Corinthians speech. It was all the rage in the news biz.

You may also recall that the Rev. Jerry Falwell, Jr., delivered a long, long, long introduction for Trump that left little if any doubt who he -- as opposed to his university -- would be endorsing in this race.

One of the major themes in this Falwell speech was that Trump the man is radically different than Trump the media figure. Falwell said this other Trump has hidden, even secret, virtues that would appeal to many Christian believers who might be turned off by his brash, super-confident, Playboy role model public image. In particular, Trump was reported to be a great family man who took his faith seriously and was quite generous to those in need.

One version of these Falwell's remarks -- as repeated on Fox News -- can be found at the end of a Washington Post essay -- "Missing from Trump’s list of charitable giving: His own personal cash" -- that is creating quite a bit of buzz.

“His limousine broke down one time, a couple stopped and helped him. He paid off their mortgage a few days later. These are all things that you never hear about Donald Trump,” Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, said on Fox News’s “Hannity” in January. ...
In a telephone interview, Falwell, who has endorsed Trump, was asked: Did you ever ask Trump if that story was true?
“I never did,” Falwell said. “But, Trey, didn’t you search that on Google?”
“I didn’t,” his son Trey said. “But somebody did.”
“It was in some publication in 1995,” the elder Falwell concluded. “But I forget which publication.”

This is, in the Post piece, offered as another example of a popular American folk legend -- the tale of the "Grateful Millionaire."

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Stealing magnolias: Journalists join pro-gay groups against Mississippi's religious liberty law

Stealing magnolias: Journalists join pro-gay groups against Mississippi's religious liberty law

Last week, when Gov. Phil Bryant signed its religious freedom law, much of the news about Mississippi has been about reprisals. Business groups have vowed to boycott the Magnolia State. Showbiz figure Ellen DeGeneres swats the state, crying oppression. And Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York has banned "nonessential travel" to Mississippi.

All with mainstream media help -- dare I say encouragement?

Reuters writes up the alliance of business leaders and pro-gay groups urging the state to repeal the new law. First the story sets up Governor Phil Bryant as the whipping boy:

Bryant hailed the statute, the latest in a series of state laws opposed by lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) activists, as designed to "protect sincerely held religious beliefs and moral convictions ... from discriminatory action by state government."
But top executives from General Electric Co., PepsiCo Inc., Dow Chemical Co. and five other major U.S. corporations, in an open letter, condemned the law as discriminatory. The letter was addressed to Bryant and the speaker of the Republican-controlled Mississippi House of Representatives.

The article is a near-textbook case of slurring by the numbers.

Partial quote in defense of the Mississippi law, with lots of quotes against -- check.

Sarcasm quotes around "religious liberty" bills, with none around "gay rights" -- check.

Ignoring religious leaders' viewpoints -- check.

Saying the law, and similar ones in other states, are "pushed by social conservatives" -- a twofer. There's the aggressive verb "pushed" along with the "conservative" red flag. Liberals, of course, never push. Nor are they identified here, although it should be obvious who is fighting the laws in question.

The main pinch of moderation is when Reuters reports:

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Episcopal leader cleans house, while reporters ignore that whole 'bugging' thing

Episcopal leader cleans house, while reporters ignore that whole 'bugging' thing

It's time for an update on a "mirror image" post that I wrote a few months ago during the media dead zone that is the days just before Christmas.

That was, when you may recall, the new leader of the Episcopal Church -- Presiding Bishop Michael Curry -- sent out a very interesting letter (in the midst of a personal medical crisis, no less). In said letter he wrote the following, which I argued was very important news if the Episcopal Church remains a highly important institution in American religious life (and, thus, in the news).

The headline on my post was, I thought, pretty sexy: "Zero news coverage? Episcopal Church's new leader cleans house (including a possible spy."

Yes, "spy," as in a corporate spy, as opposed to the Rt. Rev. James Bond, or something. The Curry letter said, in part:

I need to inform you that on Wednesday I placed on administrative leave Bishop Stacy Sauls, Chief Operating Officer, Samuel McDonald, Deputy Chief Operating Officer and Director of Mission, and Alex Baumgarten, Director of Public Engagement. This is a result of concerns that have been raised about possible misconduct in carrying out their duties as members of senior management of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society.

So what kind of mainstream news coverage did the more controversial elements of this bombshell receive?

(Cue: crickets)

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More on Mississippi religious liberty bill: Some views are more equal than others

More on Mississippi religious liberty bill: Some views are more equal than others

Can you endorse differences of opinion and reject them at the same time?

The Memphis Commercial Appeal did it in its look at Mississippi's new religious liberty bill.

The Mississippi bill, like the one Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia vetoed last week, would allow people to decline to perform certain services because of religious objections. The sponsoring legislators said it was prompted by the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage.

The Commercial Appeal news article, in its DeSoto County edition, doesn't leave you guessing its slant. Not when it gives the lede to someone who attacks the law:

Differences of opinion don't bother Kelly Harrison as long as they're just differences of opinion. When those differences potentially become a matter of life or death, that's another matter.
"If you don't want my money, I don't want to give you my money," Harrison, of Nesbit, wrote on her Facebook page last week. "But what if I or my family needed your service, life or death, and this could stop you from providing it without any worries? No matter how you paint this picture, it's discrimination."
Harrison was referring to Mississippi's "Freedom of Conscience" Act, a measure that would allow government employees or private business operators to cite religious objections as a basis to deny services to gay or lesbian couples. The bill, House Bill 1523, has passed in both legislative chambers and is on its way to Gov. Phil Bryant. The Republican governor said Friday he would look at the bill and decide what to do when it reaches him, but he has said he doesn't think it discriminates and has supported religious liberty bills previously.

Only toward the end of the article, BTW, does the newspaper reveal that Harrison and her mate are the first same-sex married couple in DeSoto County. She has a right to her opinion, but it's hardly an impartial one.

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And now for something completely different: The birth of a Transhumanist Party

And now for something completely different: The birth of a Transhumanist Party

Were you perplexed by those 17 Republican candidates for president way back when?

The Religion Guy has no way to check this but attorney Ron Gunzburger’s www.politics1.com names hundreds of 2016 hopefuls who are running in some sense and catalogues 33 “third parties.” The oldest is the 147-year-old Prohibition Party, which captured 519 of the 128,556,837 presidential votes cast in 2012.

This listing includes the newly minted Transhumanist Party of Mill Valley, Calif,, and nominee Zoltan Istvan, businessman and Huffington Post columnist. Reporters may be hearing more about this movement, which has been tiny and on the cultural fringe in the U.S. but is now emerging enough to furrow some Christian brows.

Few religious folks would argue in general against applying modern science, technology and medicine for human betterment. But ethical disputes are frequent on specific issues, for instance genetic manipulation of the human species or of vegetables, or experiments that destroy human embryos or risk harm to chimpanzees.    

Istvan defines transhumanism as “beyond human” and explains that the movement is a union of “life extensionists, techno-optimists, Singularitarians, biohackers, roboticists, A.I. proponents, and futurists who embrace radical science and technology to improve the human condition.”

For many enthusiasts the chief goal  is to totally eliminate human death, hopefully by 2045. The more optimistic Istvan thinks with a trillion dollars spent on life extension research “we will conquer human mortality within 10 years.” But, he complains, “religious extremists” have so far prevented the dream.

Immortality, anyone?

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Religious Liberty: Atlanta Journal-Constitution follow-up ignores religious sources again

Religious Liberty: Atlanta Journal-Constitution follow-up ignores religious sources again

Drat. After criticizing mainstream media the other day, for playing up opposition to Georgia's religious rights bill while gagging the pro-law side, I was all ready to praise the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for a balanced follow-up. Sadly, I have to hold the applause.

Yesterday's post, "Sides argue about impact Georgia ‘religious liberty’ bill would have," details some arguments for and against the bill, which would allow religious objections to serving with LGBT people. The bill was passed on Wednesday and now awaits Gov. Nathan Deal's signature, or his veto.

AJC delivers on its promise, partly. It reveals the contents of a "packet of documents" from the state Republican Party to its legislative allies, with background and talking points. It tells (yes, again) of corporate opposition, on the grounds that such a law would drive away businesses -- including pro sports championships like Super Bowl -- from Georgia. And it reports a Monday press conference by three gay legislators.

On the downside, the article is lopsided against the bill (yes, again).  It doesn't quote any religious leaders, although it mentions religious rights, beliefs, people and organizations 10 times.  And yet again, it uses sarcastic, scare quotes in the headline -- a clear signal for the viewpoint we readers should take about the measure.

For sheer volume, the 1,300-word article seems actually to favor the pro-law side. I count 11 paragraphs in favor of the bill, 10 against. (Some paragraphs are neutral, with background or simple narratives of the proceedings.) But look closer.

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Media gag order: In Georgia religious liberty flap, one side is played up, the other shouted down

Media gag order: In Georgia religious liberty flap, one side is played up, the other shouted down

So Georgia passed their hotly debated religious freedom bill, allowing faith-based objections to serving gays. What could be stronger than the voice of the people?

At least two things: Pro sports magnates and mainstream media. Together, they're shouting down the opposition in a drive to get Gov. Nathan Deal to veto the bill.

Team associations, like the NFL and NCAA, threaten boycotts. Team owners preach equality and tolerance. Religious voices -- except for one exception, which we'll mention later -- essentially get a gag order.

Typical for much of the coverage is yesterday's Washington Post story:

The NFL issued a stern warning Friday to the state of Georgia and the city of Atlanta, a reminder that if a "religious liberty" bill is signed into law by the governor, it could affect whether the city is chosen to host a Super Bowl.
The bill states that, with few exceptions, the government may not "substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion even if the burden results from a law, rule, regulation, ordinance or resolution of general applicability." It would also protect faith-based groups from penalties if, in the absence of contracts, they refuse to provide "social, educational or charitable services that violate such faith-based organization’s sincerely held religious belief." Those groups would also be protected if they chose not to hire an employee whose religious beliefs are in contrast with the organization’s.
The purpose of the bill, which has gone from the state legislature to the governor, is, according to one legislator, to provide a response to the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage. The NFL joined hundreds of businesses in Georgia that see it as discriminatory.
"NFL policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "Whether the laws and regulations of a state and local community are consistent with these policies would be one of many factors NFL owners may use to evaluate potential Super Bowl host sites."

The Post goes on like that for 1,200 words. It adds rebukes from the NCAA and from Atlanta teams the Hawks, the Braves and the Falcons. They all recite similar scripts about tolerance, equality, diversity and welcoming everyone.

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