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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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News? Handful of Democrats float a pro-woman plan to defund Planned Parenthood

News? Handful of Democrats float a pro-woman plan to defund Planned Parenthood

So, in terms of politics (as opposed to undercover videos), was there anything really new in the U.S. Senate debates over funding for Planned Parenthood and the mainstream media coverage thereof? What else can bored journalists (meaning those that have elected to ignore dozens of issues linked to quotations in those undercover videos) look forward to covering in other Hill debates on this topic?

Well, there was one small -- critics would say "tiny" -- wrinkle that might prove interesting, in the event of a close vote in the future.

As always, Republicans who are willing to take this dangerous political step will need to find a few allies on the other side of the aisle. Yes, honest. They need to talk to at least a few Democrats.

Thus, I found it interesting that Baptist Press -- yes, a conservative wire service -- ended up paying attention to some proposals by Democrats for Life. (Confession: Yes, I am a pro-life Democrat and have a donor's bumper sticker in my office.)

We live in a day and age in which the number of pro-life Democrats is so small that the mainstream press considers the actions of this group "conservative," even when its proposals are in some way economically progressive. Thus, Democrats for Life draws little or no mainstream ink, but is covered by the alternative conservative press (surf this Google file, if you wish).

So what did Baptist Press report as the key element of this proposal?

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European 'shadow council' calls for Catholic doctrinal evolution on sex and marriage?

European 'shadow council' calls for Catholic doctrinal evolution on sex and marriage?

One would think that a major gathering of progressive Catholic leaders, a choir of voices seeking major changes in ancient church doctrines on marriage and sexuality, would draw lots of coverage from the mainstream press.

Yes, readers will obviously need to keep their eyes on the work of some of the official journalistic voices of the Catholic left. And it might pay to set a Google News alert for the following terms -- "Pontifical Gregorian University," "German," "French," "Swiss," "family" and "divorce." Including the loaded search term "shadow council" is optional.

So, what's up? Flash back to the news about the strangely under-covered May 25  gathering of progressive European Catholic bishops and insiders (including journalists) to discuss proposed changes in doctrines linked to marriage, family and sexuality. What happened? It's hard to say, since many of the journalists did not report about the event that they attended.

Now, Andrea Gagliarducci of the conservative Catholic News Agency, has a report online based on the texts of some of the "interventions" presented behind those closed doors.

This sounds like news to me. Yes, it's one take on these materials and the lede is pushy. However, this is why it's important for the mainstream press to dive in and -- trigger warning -- do some basic journalism, talking to articulate, qualified voices on both sides of the current doctrinal warfare over sexuality in the Roman Catholic Church.

Read on.

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Got news? A pastor, the American flag and a change of church flagpole symbolism

Got news? A pastor, the American flag and a change of church flagpole symbolism

During a recent social event linked to the 4th of July, I heard another Orthodox convert tell an interesting -- at times hilarious -- story about what happened the first time she took her children into a Baptist service in which there was, shall we say, an excessive amount of red-white-and-blue liturgical material in the music, decorations and even preaching.

This got me to thinking like a reporter. I wondered if, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent 5-4 Obergefell decision backing same-sex marriage coast to coast, the patriotic July 4th rubrics might have changed in some conservative congregations.

All newspapers had to do was send a few reporters out to megachurches and see what happened. This could have been a timely story.

In other words: Got news?

Lo and behold, this broad category of stories -- the chance that conservative Christians doubting their loyalties to American civil religion -- may have life after the 4th. Heed the top of this news report from Baptist Press, which indicates that some newsrooms are aware of this television-friendly story:

North Carolina pastor Rit Varriale wants to see churches fly the Christian flag above the American flag as a biblical statement, reversing flag etiquette that calls for the American flag to be flown in the prominent position.

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Baltimore Sun editors handed major Easter story: They choose to ignore it

Baltimore Sun editors handed major Easter story: They choose to ignore it

Anyone who has covered religion news knows that one of the greatest challenges on this beat is finding valid, A1-level stories season after season, year after year, for all of those major religious holidays. It is hard, in particular, to find a news hook several days before the holiday -- with A1 art, no less -- that can be produced to run on the morning of the big day.

Christmas is hard, but -- let's face it -- Americans do Christmas stuff early and often. Some churches have even surrendered on that front.

So, on the Christian side of things, Easter is the big challenge since the solemn mood and content of Holy Week, Good Friday and Holy Saturday are so radically different. The whole point is that the universe turns upside down at midnight, which is a little bit late to be shooting color art and writing a story for A1 on Easter.

This year, the editors at The Baltimore Sun (the newspaper that lands in my front yard, for two more months) were handed something extraordinary, precisely on schedule for Easter. The most high-profile religious leader in their circulation zone -- that would be Archbishop William E. Lori, leader of the historic Catholic Archdiocese of Baltimore -- was a key player in a new development in one of the hottest stories in America at this moment in time.

The story: The holy war in Indiana and nationwide about religious liberty and First Amendment rights. Was this linked to Holy Week and Easter? In the eyes of the archbishop the answer was a loud and serious "yes."

So how did the Sun team handle this? Did they put this story on the front page on Easter?

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Pope Francis writes (cue: news crickets) urgent letter on Islamic State and religious persecution (updated)

Pope Francis writes (cue: news crickets) urgent letter on Islamic State and religious persecution (updated)

Maybe I am wrong on this, but I was under the impression that media superstar Pope Francis could say just about anything right now (other than affirming Catholic moral teachings, of course) and draw major coverage from the mainstream press.

Apparently I was wrong. Why do I say this?

Well, right now the biggest religion-news story in the world is the rise of the Islamic State and its reign of terror in the Middle East. You can look that up.

At the same time, Pope Francis remains the most important religious voice on the planet, in terms of media coverage. You can look that up, too.

Now, toss in the annual editorial need to find valid Christmas news stories and one would assume that journalists would devote quite a bit of attention if Pope Francis issued a strongly-worded Christmas letter of encouragement to people being massacred by the Islamic State. Am I right about that?

Apparently not.

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Hezbollah, Israel, media silence and the PCUSA

Hezbollah, Israel, media silence and the PCUSA

Nowhere has it surfaced in mainstream American press that an Israeli civil rights organization filed a whistleblower complaint with the IRS, accusing the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) of violating its tax-exempt status through overt political lobbying, and by violating US anti-terror laws through links with Hezbollah.

Reports have been printed in the religious press (Jewish and Christian), but save for English-language stories in Israeli press, Arutz Sheva 7 and the Jerusalem Post, this story has not captured the interests of editors. 

Perhaps the extensive coverage of the Catholic Church and conservative Protestant lobbying against the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) or the Houston sermon scandal has satiated the editors' appetites for First Amendment church/state stories. But it remains odd nonetheless that no one else is discussing a politics-and-religion story that has arisen this time from the “left."

What has been written is pretty good, however. The Jerusalem Post story is a well-crafted piece that shows how one writes a story when one side will not play ball, the reporter has limited information, and is working within space and deadline constraints.

(As an aside, I wrote for the Jerusalem Post for a number of years as one of their London correspondents, but am not now affiliated with the newspaper and do not know the author of the article in question.)

The kernel of the various stories comes from the same, not very well written, press release

Where the Jerusalem Post stands out is in the value it added to the press release. It begins its story in a matter-of-fact tone.

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Obama's new Bible bobble gets media notice -- and a few defenders

Obama's new Bible bobble gets media notice -- and a few defenders

Remember the mashup by the Biblicist-in-Chief to support his new immigration policy? On Nov. 20, President Obama said the Bible tells us that "we shall not oppress a stranger, for we know the heart of a stranger –- we were strangers once, too."

Well, he's at it again -- while arguing immigration reform again -- and the varying reactions of news outlets are instructive.

"I think the Good Book says, you know, don't throw stones in glass houses, or make sure we're looking at the log in our eye before we're pointing out the mote in other folks' eyes," Obama said Tuesday at an "Immigration Town Hall" in Nashville. "And I think that's as true in politics as it is in life."

He was partly right. Jesus did say something like it in Matthew 7:3-4, although Obama apparently mixed translations. Here it is in the commonly quoted King James Version:

And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye?  Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?

The New Revised Standard Version, used by mainline Protestants, substitutes "speck" for "mote" and "log" for "beam." So Obama wasn't wrong, just patching together different versions.

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The missing angle in news of Obama's pick for top defense post, Ashton Carter: his faith

The missing angle in news of Obama's pick for top defense post, Ashton Carter: his faith

The Washington Post's profile of Ashton Carter includes the eyebrow-raising detail that the longtime Washington insider, whom President Barack Obama is expected to nominate to succeed ousted Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, "wrote an undergraduate thesis at Yale on the Latin writings of 12th-century Flemish monks." It also quotes Carter as saying:

Public service at senior levels in Washington is a little bit like being a Christian in the Coliseum. ... You never know when they are going to release the lions and have you torn apart for the amusement of onlookers.

Hmm… he is fluent in Latin, took an academic interest in the writings of medieval monks, and jokes casually about identifying with a Christian in the Coliseum. You think he might be… oh, I don't know… Christian?

The WaPo doesn't say. Neither does The New York Times in its profile of Carter. In fact, in a few minutes scouting the Interwebs, I couldn't find anything, anywhere, indicating that Carter had any faith, or no faith. 

I did, however, find a fact about Carter that, as of this writing, has been overlooked by all the print media covering his planned nomination: In the aftermath of 9/11, he was among the prominent endorsers of a "Declaration of Principles for a Presidential Executive Order on Prisoner Treatment, Torture and Cruelty" created by the Campaign to Ban Torture. (Click here to read the declaration.) According to its website, the campaign was:

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