Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

Why the whole 'Is President Obama a Christian?' controversy just won't die

This week's "Crossroads" podcast focuses on the Frankenstein question in American public life that has left journalists shaking their heads and muttering, "It's alive, it's alive!"

I am referring, of course, to the whole Gov. Scott Walker and the "Is President Barack Obama a Christian?" thing. Then that media storm -- click here for my previous post -- led into the silly "Does Scott Walker really think that he talks with God?" episode.

Then again, am I alone in thinking that some rather cynical political reporters are creating these monsters and trying to keep them alive? Whatever. I remain convinced that Obama is what he says he is: A liberal Christian who made a profession of faith and joined the United Church of Christ, a denomination that has long represented the left edge of free-church Protestantism.

Anyway, host Todd Wilken and I ended up spending most of our time talking about the subject that I am convinced is looming behind the whole "Is Obama a Christian" phenomenon, especially this latest flap with Walker. Click here to listen in on the discussion.

Believe it or not, this brings us to a discussion of a question that quietly rumbled through the Southern Baptist blogosphere the other day: Forget the question of whether the 21 Coptic Christians who were beheaded by the Islamic State should be declared as Christian martyrs? Were they actually Christians in the first place?"

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Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Scott Walker’s church is as interesting an American story as Walker himself

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, 47, is facing new scrutiny as the flavor of the month in Republican presidential politics.  Among various disputes in play, he’s an evangelical Protestant and thus needs to be prepared for skeptical questioning about religion and pesky  “social issues.”           

While in London, Walker was asked if he’s “comfortable with” or believes in evolution. He said “that’s a question politicians shouldn’t be involved in one way or another.” Skewered for ducking, he quickly followed up with a vague faith-and-science tweet.  He also ducked when asked whether President Obama “loves America” after Rudolph Giuliani raised doubts about that, and then again when asked if the President is a fellow Christian.

Walker would be a Preacher’s Kid in the White House, the first since Wilson, so reporters will be Googling a Jan. 31 Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel piece on this, datelined Plainfield, Iowa  (population 436).

When Scott was young his father Llewellyn was the pastor of Plainfield’s First Baptist Church on -- yes -- Main Street and a town council member.  Llewellyn was also a pastor in Colorado Springs, Scott’s birthplace, and Delevan, Wisconsin, where Scott completed high school.

The father, now retired, served in the American Baptist Convention (now renamed American Baptist Churches USA), which has a liberal flank but is largely moderate to moderately evangelical.  The Journal-Sentinel missed that the current Plainfield pastor endorsed the 2009 Manhattan Declaration, which vows bold Christian opposition to abortion, assisted suicide, human cloning research, and same-sex marriage.

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Godbeat news: A funding boost at USC's Knight Chair and a new religion writer posting in Louisville

Godbeat news: A funding boost at USC's Knight Chair and a new religion writer posting in Louisville

Mostly, GetReligion focuses on critiquing media coverage of religion.

Occasionally, we update readers on important developments on the Godbeat. The following news — which we are a bit behind in sharing — falls into that category.

Via a release from the University of Southern California:

Comprehensive reporting efforts on the changing landscape of American religious practice and theological thought will see significant expansion in 2015 as a result of $1.25 million in grants awarded to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the Henry Luce Foundation.
Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg, will direct the effort.
The grants will fund a new editor and freelance-reporting budget for Religion Dispatches, the award-winning online journalism magazine based at USC Annenberg. The magazine is one element in the Knight Chair’s ongoing effort to advance specialized reporting.
Lilly Endowment awarded $1 million for a project titled “Remapping American Christianities” and the Henry Luce Foundation awarded $250,000 to pursue “Innovating Coverage of Theology.”
In addition to funding freelance reporting and a new editor, the grants will allow Winston to convene thought leaders who will help chart new directions to cover territory overlooked by other websites and print publications, she said.
The grants also will support greater collaboration between editors of Religion Dispatches and the Knight Chair with students at USC Annenberg.
“The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose,” Winston said.

To Winston's comment, we offer a hearty "Amen!"

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Death row women find God; ABC News promptly loses him

Death row women find God; ABC News promptly loses him


What was that?

Oh, just a flock of faith words sailing over the heads of ABC News.

ABC maven Diane Sawyer interviewed two female death row inmates for a special (scheduled for 10 Eastern Time tonight, Feb. 27). According to the online text and preview video, she looks at their life under threat of death. She gets them talking about their youthfulness (they're two of the youngest women on death row). And the story decries the unfairness of sentencing practices.  

What doesn't the report get to? As a GR reader, you must have surely guessed: the many religious and spiritual references in their quotes.

Part of Sawyer's "Hidden America" series, the show visits Tiffany Cole and Emilia Carr at a prison in Ocala, Fla., where they await execution for separate murders. The 1,200-word article says much about their cases and lets them say their boyfriends really did the murders.

The women admit making bad life choices but say they’ve changed. Carr says she suffered extreme stress before she "came to know God."  And Cole says: “I am not the same person anymore. I have peace, I have joy. I have a sound mind.”

Cole's quote has at least two Bible references. Romans 14:17 says the kingdom of God is a matter of "righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost."  And II Timothy 1:17 says that God imparts a spirit of "power, and of love, and of a sound mind."

Didn't Sawyer or any of her expert assistants recognize the verses? Or were they just uninterested? Hate to say it, but I'd guess the latter. Because ABC says Carr and Cole read about Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. And the two say "religion" has helped them cope behind bars.

Which religion? Well, let's hear some more clues:

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Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga

Pseudo-guru Bikram Choudhury and another scandal in the totally secular world of yoga

Wait, wait, wait. I am sure that I have read this news story before. This hot, sweaty New York Times news feature -- which just screams alternative spirituality at the top of its gray lungs -- sounds so familiar.

LOS ANGELES -- He is the yoga guru who built an empire on sweat and swagger. He has a stable of luxury cars and a Beverly Hills mansion. During trainings for hopeful yoga teachers, he paces a stage in a black Speedo and holds forth on life, sex and the transformative power of his brand of hot yoga. “I totally cure you,” he has told interviewers. “Whatever the problem you have.”
But a day of legal reckoning is drawing closer for the guru, Bikram Choudhury. He is facing six civil lawsuits from women accusing him of rape or assault. The most recent was filed on Feb. 13 by a Canadian yogi, Jill Lawler, who said Mr. Choudhury raped her during a teacher-training in the spring of 2010.

Let's see, we have a story about a pseudo-guru whose teachings are handed on to this disciples, teachings (doctrines maybe) about sexuality (perhaps the word tantra is used), healing, spiritual transformation, philosophy, anatomy and the meaning of life.

Now there is trouble in paradise. Where have I heard this before?

Maybe it was back in 2012 in The Washington Post?

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What's faith got to do with it? An embattled homeless shelter takes in 'anyone and everyone,' but why?

What's faith got to do with it? An embattled homeless shelter takes in 'anyone and everyone,' but why?

Tina Turner asked: "What's love got to do with it?"

Here's my question for The New York Times: 

Holy ghosts — as we dub 'em here at GetReligion — haunt the Times' 1,300-word story on an embattled St. Louis homeless shelter. 

The top of the story:

ST. LOUIS — The thermometer is barely reaching the driving age on this late February evening, bringing the type of arctic bite to the air here that numbs fingers and toes within minutes, and a grim procession takes place downtown.

One by one, men and women, bundled in ragtag wear of varying thicknesses, shiver into an old, cocoa-brown brick building near a strip of hip bars, restaurants and boutiques. They raise their arms at the door to be patted down, show identification and sign their names on sheets of paper before grabbing flimsy peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or dry pastries and having a seat on metal folding chairs. The air is a bit stale, the mood a bit weary. But it is warm. And for the dozens filing in, that seemed to be good enough.

“It’s livable,” said Anthony Lewis, 44, curled under a scarlet blanket on a cot in a spacious but chilly room with about 125 beds on the fifth floor. “It’s a blessing right now.”

This place, the New Life Evangelistic Center, has for decades been a safety net for hundreds of people without a place to lay their head at night. Around here, it is the shelter that is known to take in just about anyone and everyone. Even the police have dropped off the homeless at its front door, which leads into a century-old former YWCA building.

But now that this former garment district is transforming into a hub for urban renewal with new lofts and businesses attracting young, affluent residents, a war has broken out over the center’s future.

That's some nice description up high. It really paints a picture. And it provides the first hint of a religion angle.


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Faith amid suffering: Milwaukee paper shows how community faces illness

Faith amid suffering: Milwaukee paper shows how community faces illness

"To live at all is miracle enough," in the words of poet Mervyn Peake. And sometimes, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel says, the miracle is in how someone can endure suffering -- and her friends endure with her.

The sensitive feature story tells of the crisis in Rhonda Hill's life as the devout laywoman develops a brain hemorrhage. The 1,000-word article speaks of miracles, but it's more about suffering and trust.

Hill, a Lutheran official in the Milwaukee area, is the type of woman who would spend 14 weeks studying a single Bible book, Acts, with other women. She and her friends are the type to quote scripture and sing hymns all the time.

And they see God's benevolent hand, no matter what. Even at the start, when Hill started vomiting and collapsing into a chair at work.

Her friends take her to the emergency room; then the story takes a startling turn:

It was the first of many miracles, Hill, her friends and her family say. They see the hand of God — alongside those of her physicians — in every positive development, every piece of good news. Had they taken her home, as Hill had insisted, she could have lapsed into a coma, doctors told her. She could have had a stroke, or bled to death.
"One of the doctors came in here and told her she had a miracle," said Shirley Stewart, Hill's 73-year-old grandmother, who had been holding vigil in her room around the clock for days.

While the doctors test and treat, Hill's friends -- and her grandmother, a Pentecostal pastor -- hold a round of prayers, hymns and Bible readings at the hospital. And as the Journal Sentinel reports, Hill's support circle spans denominations, with bishops and pastors joining laity in the vigil:

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#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

#OMG! Mother Teresa and the revenge of the religious evangelicalists! Or whatever...

Oh my. How time flies when there is lots of work to do.

Has it really been a decade plus since sociologist Christian Smith published his infamous Books & Culture essay that ran under this grabber headline?

Religiously Ignorant Journalists
In search of Episcopals and evangelists.

As you would imagine, that piece received quick attention from the new-born and we have pointed readers to it several times, including this 2010 post by GetReligion emeritus M.Z. Hemingway which noted an interesting, and sadly not that unusual, grammatical innovation in the following NPR passage:

Some 3,000 evangelical Christian Cubans attend an open-air service in Havana to celebrate the 10th anniversary of their public service in 1999. Evangelism is among the fastest-growing religions in communist -- and formerly atheist -- Cuba.

Now, that first reference to "evangelical" is fine. But the second one? Clearly, that was supposed to say "evangelicalism." Thus, as MZ noted:

... It's clear that this is a copy editor or copy-editing problem. And certainly the industry struggles to hire editors who are both technologically savvy and literate. But, as the reader who submitted this notes, this is embarrassing. Evangelism is not a religion. Evangelicalism is a movement within Christianity and evangelism is the preaching of the Gospel of Christ.

What do you know? Four years later and NPR still hasn't fixed the vague headline: "Cubans Flock To Evangelism To Fill Spiritual Vacuum." Uh, that is still "evangelicalism."

Now, I have a new reason to bring this issue up, yet again. We will get to that in a moment. First, here is a flashback to the original Smith essay, which opened like this:

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Living on a prayer: Presidential contender's God talk mocked

Living on a prayer: Presidential contender's God talk mocked

If you're interested in social media's influence on 21st century political reporting, a scholarly paper by CNN's Peter Hamby contains excellent insight.

Published in 2013, the 95-page report is titled "Did Twitter Kill the Boys on the Bus?: Searching for a better way to cover a campaign."

Among the issues Hamby explores: the incessant snark — in 140 characters or less — that characterized media coverage of the 2012 presidential campaign.

Speaking of snark, Political Wire publisher Taegan Goddard unloaded a big ole slab of cheese Tuesday on Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a potential Republican presidential candidate.

Click the Onion-esque link, and Goddard makes light of Walker's inability to provide “a copy/transcript of all communications with God, the Lord, Christ, Jesus or any other form of deity.”

Strangely, though, not everyone on Twitter shared Goddard's sense of humor.

Eventually, Goddard cried uncle.

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