Lutherans

Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

Why ask doctrinal questions? Well, do you want to cover debates about religion or not?

I realize this may sound like a rather obvious question. However, after 40 years of religion-beat work (in one form or another) I still think that it's relevant.

The question: To cover religion news events and trends, does it help if journalists know enough about religion to ask detailed questions about, well, "religion"? When I say "religion" I am thinking about details of doctrine, tradition and history.

In other words, when covering Iraq over the past decade or two, would it have helped to know the doctrinal differences between Sunni Muslims and the Shiites? If covering debates between members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and traditional Christians, would it help to know something about the doctrine of God and the Holy Trinity? If covering debates about citizenship in Israel, do you need to know something -- doctrinally speaking -- about Reform Judaism and its emergence out of Orthodox Judaism in Europe?

This topic came up in this week's "Crossroads" podcast because of the recent GetReligion post about a nasty split inside a "Lutheran" megachurch in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, in the heart of what has long been known as the "Lutheran Belt." Click here to tune that in.

The problem was that a report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press never got around to telling readers which brand of Lutheranism was found in this specific megachurch. Meanwhile, the Minneapolis Star Tribune report clarified this big denominational question in its lede and in a follow-up paragraph a few lines later.

Did this picky detail really matter? Only if readers wanted to know what the fighting was actually about.

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Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Painful church split in Twin Cities: But what kind of Lutherans are we dealing with here?

Attention all supporters of strong, accurate religion-beat reporting: What is the first question a journalist needs to answer for readers when covering a "Lutheran church" story, especially when it is linked to controversy?

Let me raise the stakes a bit higher. This question is especially true when dealing with a flock located in Minnesota or elsewhere in the upper Midwest, which is often called the Lutheran Belt in American life because there are so many Lutheran congregations in that region.

The question: So what kind of Lutherans are we talking about?

Are we dealing with a congregation in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which, despite the presence of the E-word in the name, is a liberal flock on key issues of doctrine and moral theology? Or how about the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod, located on the right side of the mainline Protestant world? Or how about the smaller Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, which is also more doctrinally conservative than the ELCA?

So check out the top of this major story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press earlier this month. Yes, you'll have to look for clues in this long passage:

North Heights Lutheran, the one-time megachurch of Arden Hills, has run out of prayers.
The church is shutting down, the apparent victim of a civil war that has split it apart. After 70 years of weekly worship, the church’s last service will be Sunday.
“This took me by surprise,” 20-year member Zelda Erickson said Monday after learning of the closing at an announcement during Sunday’s church service. “I feel terrible about this.”

North Heights once had Sunday attendance of 3,400 at two church locations. But attendance has fallen recently to several hundred -- not enough to keep the church afloat.

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Churches and the homeless: Oregon media do the best job crediting who's really helping out

Churches and the homeless: Oregon media do the best job crediting who's really helping out

Homelessness is a huge problem on the West Coast, which seems to be the nation’s new mecca for tent cities, shelters and encampments under the freeways. California alone has 25 percent of the nation’s homeless population and when the weather gets warm, a lot of them migrate north to Oregon and Washington.

Several mayors of large cities in three states met in December to figure out how to solve a problem that’s increasingly taking up public money and sidewalk space.

The Oregonian did a series on the problem a year ago, as Portland’s lenient policies on sidewalk residents –- along with a lack of low-cost housing –- have attracted a large population. Willamette Week recently compared Portland’s generous policies with other West Coast cities. And the homeless problem here in Seattle has become so epic, photographers are doing year-long projects about it.

As I’ve scanned bunches of articles on this phenomenon, I’ve noticed a dearth of mentions on the churches that are out there helping the homeless. There are some exceptions, such as this 2004 Los Angeles Times piece on Azusa Pacific University’s homeless outreach.

Note: I had to go back 12 years to find that one.

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'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

'Mainline' blues: A veteran on religion beat gives an old church trend fresh legs

How many stories have been written on the important demographic slide across the decades among America’s moderate-to-liberal Protestant churches, the "Seven Sisters" of the old mainline?

Such pieces typically report the latest membership totals and such. But newswriters should always seek new ways to freshen up old themes, and colleague David Briggs provides an example of just how to do that.

In case anyone doesn’t know the name, Briggs was the Religion Guy’s predecessor as an Associated Press religion writer, also covered the beat for the Buffalo News and Cleveland Plain Dealer, and has been president of the Religion Newswriters Association. He now edits the “Ahead of the Trend” blog for the Association of Religion Data Archives, an organization housed at Penn State that religion journalists are --  or should be -- well aware of.

By the way, the ARDA boasts that Briggs is considered “among the Top 10 secular religion writers and reporters in North America,” which sounds right. Who’d be on your own list? Leave me some notes in the comments pages.

Here’s the old-school Briggs formula: Pull together telling data that haven’t gotten much coverage, interview some of the usual suspects on the implications and then propose a strong conclusion about mainline woe: “Not only is there no end in sight, but there are few signs of hope for revival in rapidly aging, shrinking groups.”

These churches won’t disappear, we’re told, but their decline will not bottom out, much less turn around.

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Not enough questions asked about bisexual student's ouster from Lutheran worship team

Not enough questions asked about bisexual student's ouster from Lutheran worship team

December is a season where Lutherans shine: Advent hymns on Lutheran Public Radio, Julfests and St. Lucia Day celebrations on Dec. 13.

None of this Ikea “winter holidays” stuff. Lutherans who stick with their traditions know how to keep watch until Christmas.

And so, in keeping with this solemn and thoughtful season, we have a piece from the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press about a bisexual student at Concordia University. When it comes to journalism issues, this story also includes a very crucial hole in the reporting.

A student at Concordia University in St. Paul is demanding protections for gays and lesbians after she said her relationship with another woman cost her a leadership role with a prominent student-led worship group.
Nikki Hagan, 19, of Woodbury said the student president of Concordia's 908 student ministry asked her to resign her informal post as the group's message coordinator soon after she posted on Facebook in November that she is bisexual and dating a woman.
"He asked me if I knew what the stance of the (Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod) church is against homosexuality," Hagan, a second-year student, said Friday.

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Crucial religion info still missing in updates on holiday wars at University of Tennessee

Crucial religion info still missing in updates on holiday wars at University of Tennessee

We have some interesting news here in East Tennessee about the University of Tennessee holiday wars. I call them "holiday wars," as opposed to "Christmas wars," because it appears to be very hard to fight Christmas here in the valley framed by the Cumberland and Great Smoky Mountains.

As I mentioned the other day, UT's Office for Diversity and Inclusion posted very specific guidelines on how to make sure that official "holiday" party held on campus did not turn into, as the memo put it, a "Christmas party in disguise." The memo also instructed UT folks to use "non-denominational" holiday cards and said those attending holiday parties "should not play games with religious and cultural themes -- for example, 'Dreidel' or 'Secret Santa.' "

The news is that the memo that ticked off Tennessee Republicans -- the dominant party here in the hills -- is gone. Also, the diversity office's leader, Vice Chancellor Rickey Hall, now has a UT communications officer screening his website. The new memo -- text here -- contains zero instructions about how to edit Christmas out of campus parties. Here is a large chunk of the "new" memo, which apparently is a memo that was used in the past:

Recognizing a wide variety of cultures and beliefs, we should note that people choose to celebrate in different ways and on varying days of the year.
While there are many joyous occasions and special opportunities to gather, employee participation in any celebration should always be voluntary. While it is inevitable that differences will appear in how people celebrate, everyone is encouraged to have an open mind and to approach every situation with sensitivity.

Alas, there are all kinds of facts we still don't know about this drama, almost all of them linked to religion.

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Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue

Lutherans and Catholics: Some major, major overlooked news to pursue

Pope Francis continues to confound conservative Catholics. A notable incident Nov. 15 got little attention in the mainstream press as the globe was transfixed by Islamist terrorism. This is an incident worth a second look from reporters.

During a Rome meeting with Lutherans, a wife asked the pontiff when she could receive Catholic communion alongside her Catholic husband. Francis responded:

“... You believe that the Lord is present. And what’s the difference? There are explanations, interpretations, but life is bigger than explanations and interpretations. Always refer back to your baptism – ‘one faith, one baptism, one Lord,’ this Paul tells us; and then consequences come later. I would never dare to give permission to do this because it’s not my own competence. One baptism, one Lord, one faith. Talk to the Lord, and then go forward. [Pause] And I wouldn’t dare, I don’t dare say anything more.”

Leaving aside the pope’s “competence,” his “go forward” is reasonably interpreted as “go ahead” if your own conscience says "go." Francis has roused similar debate over Communion for  remarried Catholics without the required annulments of first marriages.

Catholicism’s Catechism is explicit that Protestants shouldn’t receive at Mass until the whole tangle of doctrinal disagreements is resolved:

“Ecclesial communities derived from the Reformation and separated from the Catholic Church ‘have not preserved the proper reality of the Eucharistic ministry in its fullness, especially because of the absence of the sacrament of Holy Orders’ [quoting the Second Vatican Council’s 1964 decree on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio]. It is for this reason that Eucharistic intercommunion with these communities is not possible for the Catholic Church” (#1400).  

The Religion Guy learned about the pope’s words from Rod Dreher’s comments on his blog at theamericanconservative.com.

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Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Syrian refugees, redux: This time, AP remembers to ask religious leaders

Last week I criticized the Associated Press for writing about Syrian Christian refugees without talking to any Christians. (Thinking back, I don’t think they talked to Syrians either.) Well, AP finally got around to asking not only Christians but those of a range of faiths. And they did a beautiful job. Especially compared to some stories I could mention.

The background, of course, is the public anxiety over President Barack Obama's plans to bring in 10,000 or more refugees from the Syrian civil war over the next year. In the wake of the recent attacks in Paris, and reports that cells of terrorists are dotted all over Europe, many Americans worry that some of the killers may enter the country posing as refugees.

This is a story on which religious groups have clear viewpoints, and Godbeat pro Rachel Zoll of AP rounds up those perspectives. She samples views of Protestants, Catholics, Jews and even an American Muslim group. Her thorough report shows a remarkable consensus among them.

The top of the story could hardly be better:

In rare agreement across faith and ideological lines, leaders of major American religious groups have condemned proposed bans on Syrian refugees, contending a legitimate debate over security has been overtaken by irrational fear and prejudice.
Top organizations representing evangelicals, Roman Catholics, Jews and liberal Protestants say close vetting of asylum seekers is a critical part of forming policy on refugees. But these religious leaders say such concerns, heightened after the Paris attacks a week ago, do not warrant blocking those fleeing violence in the Middle East.

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On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

On Syrian refugees, AP finds it easier to talk about Christians than to them

Ever hear people talk about you while you're standing right there? It comes close to that in an Associated Press story on whether to accept Syrian refugees into the United States.

"Should the U.S. admit Syrians only if they are Christian?" the headline says in Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe. AP talks to politicians. They quote government officials all the way up to President Obama. And they major, of course, on presidential candidates who brought up the issue in the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris last week.

Who don’t they ask? That's right. Christians. For AP, the religious angle is just a front for politics:

The debate, which cuts straight to the American identity as a refuge, on Monday ranged from whether to only admit Syrians who are Christian to whether to close some mosques. But across the political landscape, caution intensified about vetting Syrian refugees and whether to allow them into the country at all.
GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump suggested in a MSNBC interview that he would “strongly consider” closing some mosques if elected. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush said the United States should focus on admitting Christians. And GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio for the first time said the United States should no longer accept Syrian refugees because it’s impossible to know whether they have links to Islamic militants — an apparent shift from earlier statements in which he left open the prospects of migrants being admitted with proper vetting.

Oh yeah, something else must annoy you as much as me: when the gossip is vague and inaccurate. What does closing mosques have to do with Christian refugees? Does it sharpen focus to talk about turning away all refugees, Christian or not? And does Bush really want to admit only Syrians who are Christians?

Because that ain't what Bush said, according to AP -- even though the story has Obama saying he did:

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