Interviews

Was it cynical to ask Walker if Obama is a Christian? (Yes) Was it a valid political question? (Yes)

Was it cynical to ask Walker if Obama is a Christian? (Yes) Was it a valid political question? (Yes)

Perhaps Gov. Scott Walker should have just said, "Who am I to judge?"

In a way, it appears that this may have been what he was trying to say, or at least that's one reading of his problematic remarks to The Washington Post.

Or perhaps he should have just said, "Of course Barack Obama is a Christian. The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Jr., confirmed that Obama was baptized in Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago sometime during the early 1990s, although it doesn't appear that the church recorded the date. Some people think that it was in 1988, but no one is sure."

Republicans who are asked this gotcha question in the future will know that -- while the doctrinal specifics of Obama's faith remain a mystery, and he has never joined a church inside the DC Beltway -- this is a man who has testified, as follows:

So one Sunday, I put on one of the few clean jackets I had, and went over to Trinity United Church of Christ on 95th Street on the South Side of Chicago. And I heard Reverend Jeremiah A. Wright deliver a sermon called "The Audacity of Hope." And during the course of that sermon, he introduced me to someone named Jesus Christ. I learned that my sins could be redeemed. I learned that those things I was too weak to accomplish myself, He would accomplish with me if I placed my trust in Him. And in time, I came to see faith as more than just a comfort to the weary or a hedge against death, but rather as an active, palpable agent in the world and in my own life.
It was because of these newfound understandings that I was finally able to walk down the aisle of Trinity one day and affirm my Christian faith. It came about as a choice, and not an epiphany. I didn't fall out in church, as folks sometimes do. The questions I had didn't magically disappear. The skeptical bent of my mind didn't suddenly vanish. But kneeling beneath that cross on the South Side, I felt I heard God's spirit beckoning me. I submitted myself to His will, and dedicated myself to discovering His truth and carrying out His works.

As David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network candidly put it: "That, ladies and gentlemen, is called a conversion experience."

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What is news? NASCAR America collides, at National Prayer Breakfast, with politics of NPR America

What is news? NASCAR America collides, at National Prayer Breakfast, with politics of NPR America

About a third of a century ago, back when I was doing graduate work in mass communications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I started calling up editors and asking them a simple question: Why doesn't your newsroom -- mostly newspapers, back then -- do more to cover religion news?

These interviews ended up being part of my graduate project, which was edited down and ran as a massive cover story -- "The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets" -- at the professional journal called The Quill

Editors gave me all kinds of reasons for their limited coverage of the Godbeat, but there were two reasons that I heard more than any other:

(1) Religion news is too boring (and no one wants to cover it).

(2) Religion news is too controversial (and causes our readers to get too riled up and they write too many leaders to the editor).

And there you had it: The world was just full -- too full, it seemed -- of boring, controversial religion stories. Between the lines, these journalists seem to be saying that religion was boring to THEM, yet they could not figure out why THEIR READERS seemed to care so much about it. Thus, the strange blend of boredom and controversy.

I thought about that this week when "Crossroads" podcast host Todd Wilken and I were talking about that controversial speech that President Barack Obama gave at the recent National Prayer Breakfast.

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Brian Williams, Saint John Paul II, Charlton Heston, Kevin Bacon and, well, me

Brian Williams, Saint John Paul II, Charlton Heston, Kevin Bacon and, well, me

Remember that game that was so hot a few years ago, the whole "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon" thing? One of the fun things about hanging out with experienced journalists is that you can play a similar game, based on who has interviewed who.

For example, as a religion writer I have interviewed Billy Graham. That puts me one degree of separation away from, what, half of the famous people in world culture in the second half of the 20th century? Or, in music, I have interviewed Dave Brubeck. Stop and think about that one, in terms of links to music royalty dating back into the early 20th century.

However, journalists do like to sweat the details.

For example, I have asked Tom Hanks a question in a live press conference. Is that the same thing as "meeting" Hanks? Perhaps you shook hands with the Archbishop of Canterbury and asked a quick question. Is that the same thing as "interviewing" him? How about a telephone interview with Robert Duvall? Twice? Is that the same as "meeting" him?

I attended the 1987 meeting between St. John Paul II and media leaders in Hollywood and greater Los Angeles, sneaking in with a pass from a Rocky Mountain News editor (a national officer in a press association) who was not able to attend. At the end, the pope moved down the aisle greeting people and shaking hands. I had a chance to shake his hand but, well, I let Charlton Heston get in front of me. You can't fight the voice of God, right? I did speak a greeting to the pope and he nodded. But is that "meeting" the pope?

Where am I going with this? To the latest wrinkles in the sad story of Brian Williams, of course.

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RIP David Carr: A struggling Catholic voice at The New York Times is gone

RIP David Carr: A struggling Catholic voice at The New York Times is gone

If you closely followed the career of media critic David Carr, then you knew that he was a practicing Catholic, yet he also made it clear that he wasn't sure if he was a faithful Catholic. For many readers -- fans and critics -- this made him the perfect New York Times Catholic.

Former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey wrote about some of this in a GetReligion post back in 2011 and, in one of her first bylines at The Washington Post, she produced a quick piece on the religion-angle in Carr's death. Try to ignore this, from the new Post piece:

New York Times journalist David Carr, who died Thursday, had a complicated relationship with religion. In his 2009 book “The Night of the Gun,” Carr wrote about his father’s faith compared with his own.
“My father is a man who swears frequently goes to church every day, and lives his towering faith,” Carr wrote. “I am a man who swears frequently, goes to church every Sunday, and lives in search of faith. He is a man who believes that I am not dead because nuns prayed for me. I am a man who believes that is as good an explanation as any.”

A kind of brass-tacks, but vague, faith shows up again in the most famous passage from that book, in which Carr rips into his own life, exposing a man so hooked on drugs that he would place his own children at risk. How many of you have already seen a piece today in which the following passage -- with good cause -- is featured?

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Wall Street Journal ably captures Tim Keller's voice, and little else

Wall Street Journal ably captures Tim Keller's voice, and little else

Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church blends a good nature, a nimble mind, leadership in evangelical circles, and a pastoral heart toward fellow New Yorkers.  A lengthy profile in the Wall Street Journal captures much of that, yet leaves much unsaid. And it says a couple of things that should have been left unsaid.

The 1,870-word profile has several strengths. It briskly marches out the basics: 5,500 attending Keller's services, 300 church plants around the world, regular members under 35 years old. It also clearly summarizes Keller's message:

“Everyone has a God, everyone has a way of salvation, we just don’t use the term,” he says. “St. Augustine would say: What makes you what you really are is what you love the most.” Mr. Keller adds that he likes “to show secular people that they’re not quite as unreligious as they think. They’re putting their hopes in something, and they’re living for it.” For ambitious, driven New Yorkers, it’s often a career, he says. “I try to tell people: The only reason you’re laying yourself out like this is because you’re not really just working. This is very much your religion.”
If there’s no God, he says in sermons, then everything you do at work will be forgotten, and nothing you can do in your career will earn lasting significance. But if Christianity is true, then “every good endeavor,” he likes to say, no matter how small, “can matter forever.” One tough part for people, he says, is coming under “God’s authority,” because “you have to find your identity in Christ, and not in just fulling yourself,” That “completely collides with what the culture is telling people.”

In classic profile fashion, the Journal fills in personal details: Keller's glasses, his 6-foot-plus height and the church’s offices in midtown Manhattan. He "looks less like a pastor than a professor," the writer says.

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Pod people: Looking at the year's Top 10 religion-beat stories, through the eyes of the late George W. Cornell

Pod people: Looking at the year's Top 10 religion-beat stories, through the eyes of the late George W. Cornell

Anyone who knows their religion-beat history knows this byline -- George W. Cornell of the Associated Press.

When he died in 1994, the national obituaries called him the "dean of American religion writers" and that was precisely the role that he played for decades, especially for those of us who broke into the religion-news business back in the 1970s and '80s.

However, when I did a series of interviews with him in 1981, for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") he simply described himself as the AP's religion writer for all of planet earth. How would you like to try to handle that job? (The Vatican bureau didn't count, he explained, because editors tended to view that as a political and international-news bureau.)

George had a private tradition in which, every year, he analyzed the Associated Press list of the world's top 10 stories and counted the ones that -- seen through his veteran eyes -- were built on facts and history rooted in religion. He never saw a year with fewer than five of these stories, he told me, and frequently there would be more than that.

Ah, he explained, but were the religion facts and angles in these stories (a) covered accurately, (b) presented in a way that could be understood by the general public or (c) covered AT ALL?

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Trying to hear the voices of faith in the Ray and Janay Rice story

Trying to hear the voices of faith in the Ray and Janay Rice story

It must be real challenge to cover the domestic-violence drama of Ray and Janay Rice -- the actual story of the human beings themselves, as opposed to the melodrama within the bazillion-dollar kingdom called the National Football League -- without including some of the Godtalk.

Mr. and Mrs. Rice continue to talk about sin, forgiveness and redemption. The same goes for the Ravens head coach, who is an outspoken Christian, and ditto for the general manager. The team's director of player development (and moral issues) is an ordained minister. Many of Ray Rice's closest friends among Ravens players -- like wide receiver Torrey Smith -- are Godtalkers as well.

How do you quote these people without covering the religion angle?

Faithful GetReligion readers know that the team at The Baltimore Sun is up to that challenge.

Thus, I was curious to see what would happen when Rice won his battle with the NFL powers that be and was reinstated as an active player in the league. It's the hottest storyline of the pro-football weekend and, here in Baltimore, local news channels ran BREAKING NEWS! alerts onscreen during regular programming for two or three hours, which wouldn't happen if there was a peace settlement in Syria.

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Who rescued Rusty? Art? God? Prison? Dallas newspaper doesn't clear it up

Who rescued Rusty? Art? God? Prison? Dallas newspaper doesn't clear it up

"Lord, have mercy," Leonard "Rusty" Medlock says twice in a profile in the Dallas Morning News. Let's all pray the same as we puzzle over the newspaper's article.

On the one hand, Medlock is quoted several times saying that only God's grace awakened his artistic talent in prison, where he was serving time for a drug conviction. On the other hand, the newspaper says Medlock's very incarceration -- or his own talents -- turned his life around.

This dichotomy starts with the first two paragraphs:

No one has to sell Leonard “Rusty” Medlock on the idea of giving people second chances.
The same situation that threatened to marginalize him in society — a prison term for drug-related felonies — liberated him in a Texas prison.

See it wasn’t God, it was prison that liberated Medlock.

But wait, the headline says: "Set free by art in prison, ex-convict paints a new life for himself." So, it was neither God nor prison, it was art.

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5Q+1 interview: Godbeat pro Peter Smith discusses his in-depth project on immigrant religion in Pittsburgh

5Q+1 interview: Godbeat pro Peter Smith discusses his in-depth project on immigrant religion in Pittsburgh

Peter Smith has spent the last several months reporting on immigrant religious communities in Pittsburgh, carving out time for the special project between daily assignments.

After 13 years on the Godbeat with the Louisville Courier-Journal, Smith joined the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette as its new religion writer last year. He previously freelanced for Religion News Service.

His work with the Post-Gazette earned him the Religion Newswriters Association's 2014 Religion Reporter of the Year Award. That prize recognizes excellence in religion writing for metropolitan newspapers.

In all, Smith boasts 30 years of experience as a reporter and editor.  He earned a bachelor of arts in English at Oral Roberts University and a master of arts in religion from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary.

Smith discussed his first year in Pittsburgh — including the immigrant religion project — in an interview with GetReligion.

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