Evangelicals

Yes, we saw that rather stunning Gawker quote about God and the mainstream press

Yes, we saw that rather stunning Gawker quote about God and the mainstream press

For years, I have heard religious leaders -- yes, most of them conservative types -- ask reporters whether or not they go to church. It's not a nice question and, I would argue, it's not the right question to ask if the goal is to understand why the mainstream press struggles to cover religion news.

The goal of this question, essentially, is to show that an unusually high percentage of the scribes and editors in newsrooms are godless heathens who hate religious people. Now, I have met a few of those heathens in newsrooms, but not as many as you would think. I've met my share of "spiritual, but not religious" journalists and quite a few religious progressives. I once heard a colleague quip that the only place that the Episcopal Church's "Decade of Evangelism," in the 1990s, was a success was in newsrooms.

As I have said before on this blog, there are plenty of non-believers who do a fine job covering religion news. Then again, I have met believers who could not report their way out of a paper bag.

No, the question religious folks should be asking journalists -- when reporters are sent to cover religion events -- is this: How long have you covered religion news and what did you do,  professionally and/or academically, to prepare for this work? In other words, stop asking journalists religious questions and start asking them journalism questions.

If you want to see a "Do you go to church?" train wreck, then check out the following commentary (and then some) from Hamilton Nolan at Gawker that as been making the rounds.

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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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Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

Listening to Chattanooga voices, in the mosque and public square (but not in churches)

From the beginning, the New York Times reporters probing the shootings in Chattanooga have shown a willingness to dig into the religious questions linked to the troubled life and mind of Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez. They have not blown questions about the role of Islam out of proportion, but they have certainly not ignored them, either.

The journalistic task at hand was simplified by the faith-related blog materials that Abdulazeez left behind that, to some degree, described his state of mind. Meanwhile, the young man's personal struggles were right there in the public record. There was no need for speculation, other than covering the actions of authorities who were trying to find out if Abdulazeez had any online ties to violent forms of Islam.

As it should, this research led to the local mosque to see how this Muslim community -- deep in Bible Belt territory -- was reacting. The Times did an fine job with that story, as well. And the reactions of believers in the faith community on the other side of this drama? Hold that thought.

With the mosque story, the regional context (just down the road from my Oak Ridge home) was crucial:

CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. -- Just beyond a massive strip mall, with its Best Buy and Hobby Lobby, Abdul Baasit, the imam at the Islamic Society of Greater Chattanooga, found himself preaching on Friday about a nightmare.
It was Eid al-Fitr, at the end of Ramadan, normally a time of gift-giving and carnival celebration. But the party that had been planned was canceled: A man who had attended prayer services at the center’s mosque killed four Marines on Thursday. And Mr. Baasit, 48, was trying to help Chattanooga’s Muslim faithful cope with their grief over the deaths, and their fear of reprisal. ...

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Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

Did NPR shortchange the religious left during its Obergefell coverage? Uh, yes

The other day, I had an interesting conversation with a reader, someone with a long history of reading my "On Religion" syndicated column (my column has run in The Knoxville News Sentinel for 26-plus years) and now this blog.

To be blunt, this person (Catholic, by the way) was a bit upset about my recent column that went out on the wires with this suggested headline: "Triumphant day for the Episcopal Church establishment." In particular, this reader was upset that -- in lengthy quotations -- I let the openly gay, noncelibate retired Bishop V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire essentially do a victory dance celebrating (a) the 5-4 Obergefell decision in which the U.S. Supreme Court backed same-sex marriage and (b) the Episcopal Church's decision to proceed with same-sex marriage rites in its churches.

Why did I do this in my column? I responded: Because that was the essence of the story. Robinson and the Episcopal left won and, for readers to understand that victory, they needed to know what that meant to one of the symbolic figures in that long and painful drama.

I bring this up because several readers have asked your GetReligionistas what we thought of the recent commentary at National Public Radio on a related issue, one that ran under this headline, "Ombudsman Mailbag: On Staffing, Missing Information, And Religious Viewpoints." Settling up the crucial discussion, Elizabeth Jensen wrote:

I've heard from some Christians who feel NPR's coverage of the Supreme Court's ruling on same-sex marriage left the impression that all Christians oppose it. There's quite a bit of social media chatter on this, as well.

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How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

How did 'Christian' — as an adjective in mass media — come to mean shallow and lousy?

On one level, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in) is a follow-up discussion of my recent blog here about the New York Times article that, allegedly, tried to look for Jesus at Comic-Con 2015. That event in San Diego is, as I described it in my discussion with Todd Wilken, the great annual gathering of the pop-culture tribes for a "sacred dance" of hero worship and, of course, marketing.

The Times team apparently went to this event looking for evidence that the emerging mini-industry of films and television miniseries targeting "Christian" consumers -- in this case, "Christian" clearly means "evangelical" -- just isn't with it, or cool enough, when it comes to competing in the pop-culture major leagues. But that article, I argued, really didn't pay attention to (a) the work of Christians in mainstream media and (b) the ongoing debates, decade after decade, about aith questions raised in franchises such as "Star Wars," zombie movies, the X-Men, Doctor Who, etc., etc., etc.

In the end, the podcast ended up focusing on how the term "Christian" -- used as a adjective for marketing purposes -- has in our times become another way of saying shoddy, cheap, shallow and derivative. This led to some obvious questions.

Was J.S. Bach a "Christian" composer? Is Christopher Parkening a "Christian" classical guitarist?

Was J.R.R. Tolkien a "Christian" novelist?

How about C.S. Lewis? How about Jane Austen? How about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? When Fyodor Dostoyevsky sat down to write, was he thinking to himself, "How can I please the 'Christian' marketplace?" How about Flannery O'Connor? By the way, her work was the subject of my "On Religion" column for Universal this past week.

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Did Pope Francis really embrace 'unorthodox' practices among charismatic Catholics?

Did Pope Francis really embrace 'unorthodox' practices among charismatic Catholics?

Time for a quick trip into the thick tmatt file of guilt, full of GetReligion topiccs I had hoped to get to several days ago.

During the papal trip to South America, the New York Times veered away from political analysis in one story and hit on one of the most important two-part developments in world religion in the past few decades.

Part one: The rise of Pentecostal Protestantism in the once solidly Catholic culture of South America. Click here for tons of information from the Pew Forum. Part two: The rise of the Catholic charismatics soon after that in the same region, and elsewhere in the Global South.

This led to an interesting, and to me troubling, Times team use of an important doctrinal term. Then, that mistake hinted at a key hole in the story. Let's start at the colorful beginning:

QUITO, Ecuador -- The rock music boomed as the congregants at this simple, white-walled church sang and clapped, raising their arms skyward as they prayed aloud and swayed to the beat. The sermon included jokes and a call-and-response with people in the pews. There was even a faith healing testimonial.
But just when it seemed like a Protestant revival meeting, the blessing of the host began and the parishioners filed to the altar to take communion, as in any other Roman Catholic Mass.
Afterward, many of the worshipers bought T-shirts and scarves with the logo of Pope Francis’ visit to their country this week.
“They’re not so Catholic, are they?” joked the priest who presided over the service, Ismael Nova, referring to the Masses he conducts at San Juan Eudes parish church. “They’re different.”

Not very Catholic? Really now.

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Religious freedom buffet: Los Angeles Times scattershoots on same-sex marriage decision

Religious freedom buffet: Los Angeles Times scattershoots on same-sex marriage decision

Ho-hum.

That's my basic reaction to a Los Angeles Times story this week on same-sex marriage and religious freedom.

This is one of those stories that — in roughly 1,200 words — manages to cover a lot of ground while really covering no ground at all. It's the journalistic equivalent of an all-you-can-eat buffet. You pile your plate full of everything and can't really concentrate on anything. And your stomach aches afterward.

Let's start at the top:

For some, the Supreme Court's decision declaring that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry put the free exercise of religion in danger.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. was among them.
"Hard questions arise when people of faith exercise religion in ways that may be seen to conflict with the new right to same-sex marriage — when, for example, a religious college provides married student housing only to opposite-sex couples, or a religious adoption agency declines to place children with same-sex married couples," Roberts wrote in a dissent joined by three other justices.
He also perceived a threat to tax exemptions for religious schools and colleges that oppose same-sex marriage. "Unfortunately, people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today," Roberts said.
On the other hand, the same high court has expanded religious liberties. Just a year ago, the court's majority ruled for the Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores, holding they had a religious-freedom right to refuse to pay for certain contraceptives mandated by the Obama administration under the federal Affordable Care Act.

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Must read: Baltimore Sun explores rich world of ushers, in black church traditions

Must read: Baltimore Sun explores rich world of ushers, in black church traditions

During my two decades -- sort of -- teaching journalism in Washington, one of the sharpest and most talented journalists I got to know was Hamil Harris of The Washington Post.

Now, this ultra-energetic man -- a student once called him Hurricane Hamil -- is talented in so many ways. Name me another former Florida State University gridiron lineman who is a great multi-platform reporter, speaks Russian, is a talented Gospel musician, has worked as a tech aide (hope I got that right) in emergency room surgery and has a theology degree. Does he fly airplanes too? I forget.

I could tell so many Hamil stories. But the key for this post today is his constant emphasis, speaking to my students, on never losing sight of the human element in reporting. Journalism is about people, their voices, their stories, their pain, their joy and, yes, the information in their heads and at their fingertips. Journalism is often about famous people, but wise journalists know that everyone they meet knows something about some story, information that could be crucial in the future. Treat them right. Respect them. Listen to them.

That's Hamil talking. This brings me to his insights, through the years, into the role that ushers play in African-American church life. They are more than doorkeepers. Ushers are a crucial part of what these churches do, both in worship and in community building. They are the eyes and ears of the body of the church.

So I thought of Hamil when The Baltimore Sun ran a fine news feature the other day under the somewhat bland headline: "Ushers serve as 'doorkeepers' to worship." The opening anecdote captures the "eyes and ears" concept.

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Concerning Hispanic evangelicals and the death penalty: Dig a little deeper, please

Concerning Hispanic evangelicals and the death penalty: Dig a little deeper, please

In my days covering the state prison system for The Oklahoman, I witnessed a handful of executions — some high profile and others not.

Given that experience, headlines concerning public support for — and opposition to — capital punishment always catch my attention.

A front-page story by the Houston Chronicle this week tackled a compelling angle: Hispanic evangelicals forming what the newspaper described as a "new front in the battle against the death penalty."

The Chronicle's lede:

For years, Samuel Rodriguez, a California Assemblies of God preacher, accepted both views as gospel truth.

But then came nagging doubts about capital punishment's effectiveness in deterring crime and a growing belief that "African-Americans and Hispanics disproportionately are on the wrong end of the injection." After a decade of soul-searching, Rodriguez reached a startling conclusion: To truly be pro-life means to support life "inside and outside the womb."

Today, Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the nation's largest Hispanic evangelical group, has become emblematic of a new wave of conservative Christians rallying opposition to the death penalty. Rodriguez fought to spare
the life of schizophrenic Texas double-killer Scott Panetti — a federal court stayed the execution — and, in a Time magazine essay, decried a botched Oklahoma execution.

In March, a second Hispanic group, the New York-based National Latino Evangelical Coalition, became the first evangelical association to call for capital punishment's end.

"The idea that the evangelical church gives rubber-stamp approval to the death penalty is no longer applicable," Rodriguez said. "More and more, Bible-believing individuals, theological conservatives, Christ's followers in America, are beginning to sway away from capital punishment."

Keep reading, and the Houston newspaper makes the case that Hispanic evangelicals "are entering a contentious debate that for decades has split American believers":

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