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Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

Concerning RNS and GetReligion: Yes, there are 'church' and 'state' debates in journalism

For weeks, I have been hearing from readers asking me when GetReligion was going to address the Catholic News Agency report about the $120,000 grant from the Arcus Foundation to the Religion Newswriters Foundation, which owns Religion News Service.

In one article, CNA noted that the grant listing said that its purpose was to "recruit and equip LGBT supportive leaders and advocates to counter rejection and antagonism within traditionally conservative Christian churches." When announcing the grant, Arcus officials said this grant would help foster a "culture of LGBT understanding through the media” by funding news reports and blogging posts “about religion and LGBT peoples of color.”

RNS Editor Kevin Eckstrom defended his wire service's editorial independence, stressing that this public relations represented "Arcus’ description of their funding, not ours.” It is also crucial to note that the funding connections between RNS and the Religion Newswriters Foundation are complex, to the degree that CNA needed to correct some fine details. Please read that whole report carefully.

In that story, Eckstrom also noted that GetReligion frequently criticizes RNS because its work does not meet our blog's "standard of theological orthodoxy.”

I did not respond, although there is much to be said on these matters. First of all, please note that GetReligion frequently praises the work of RNS and we certainly recognize its crucial role as the only mainstream news operation dedicated to covering the religion beat. Second, let me acknowledge that -- over the past decade -- RNS frequently took interns from the Washington Journalism Center (which is now being rebooted in New York City). Eckstrom and his team, frankly, did a fantastic and gracious job working with my program's students and I will always be grateful for that.

So what can I say about the "theological" issues involved in this discussion? Let's start with some background on journalism "theology."

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Happy couple has 100 grandkids: Can you (as opposed to AP) spot the religion ghost?

Happy couple has 100 grandkids: Can you (as opposed to AP) spot the religion ghost?

This has to be one of the #DUH items to ever grace the cyber pages here at GetReligion. Let's see if you can spot the religion ghost in this one.

So let's say that you are reading a story about a nice elderly couple in Illinois named Leo and Ruth Zanger. The story appeared in the Quincy Herald-Whig that was picked up by the Associated Press, which is why several people (Hello M.Z. Hemingway!) saw it and sent me stunned, even incredulous notes.

Now, the key to this story is that Leo and Ruth Zanger recently celebrated the birth of their 100th grandchild. Thus, here is the top of the story:

It's a big deal when Leo and Ruth Zanger's family gets together. Seriously, it's a really big deal -- with added emphasis on the "big" part.
The Zangers recently welcomed their 100th grandchild, which makes family functions more than a get-together.
"We rent out a church hall," said Austin Zanger, a grandson of Leo and Ruth.
When Austin's wife, Ashleigh, gave birth to their second child, Jaxton Leo, on April 8, it became a historic moment. Jaxton was grandchild No. 100 for Leo and Ruth. For the numerically inclined, Jaxton was also No. 46 among the great-grandchildren. The Zangers also have 53 grandkids and one great-great-grandchild for a nice round 100.
"The good Lord has just kept sending them," Leo Zanger said of the grandkids. "We could start our own town."

Ah, but what kind of church hall? Seriously, as you read the top of this story didn't the following thought drift through your mind: "The Zangers must be really serious Catholics."

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Buffalo paper posts intirguing piece on would-be nuns that omits a few questions

Buffalo paper posts intirguing piece on would-be nuns that omits a few questions

There’s been a lot of press in recent years about the newer more conservative type of American nun and how influxes of 20-something women joining fairly new religious communities.

That is, the new breed of nun isn't joining up with some of the traditional orders. They are inventing their own or joining communities that have taken old, old traditions and pulled them into the modern world, trusting that they are still relevant and will appeal to the young.

Here’s a story of a quintet of young women who are doing just that, care of the team at The Buffalo News

Nuns have long been the bedrock of the Catholic Church in Western New York. At the height of their numbers in the late 1960s, more than 3,500 sisters ministered in the region, teaching and healing hundreds of thousands of people in schools and hospitals. Hundreds of sisters remain active in the area today, but most are well into their 60s and 70s, and their communities have long passed the stage of being able to replenish themselves with fresh-faced recruits. Most communities of women religious in the area haven’t welcomed a new nun in decades. Some have given up on looking for candidates.
Yet, on the Lake Erie shoreline in Derby, a Catholic retreat house now teems with the youthful exuberance of Martin and four other women, all in their 20s and hoping to become nuns together in what could be the first religious community built from scratch in the Buffalo diocese.

That's a nice punch statement in a summary paragraph. Now, here are some additional details.

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Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

Religion angle? WWII vet united with his prayer book, long after it fell from 30,000 feet

For a decade, starting in 1995, I led a month-long reporting "boot camp" here in Washington that always included Memorial Day. Year after year, I was amazed at the personal stories that would emerge as I helped young reporters cover these events for local newspapers across the land.

You want symbolic details in poignant stories? Cover Memorial Day in greater Washington, D.C. I still have a soft spot in my heart for Memorial Day stories.

This brings me to an amazing Baltimore Sun story -- "Towson WW II airman's prayer book returned from Europe after 70 years" -- timed for Memorial Day that, for some reason, the editors decided to play on A2 with timid art.

This story really got to me, and not in a good way, in part because of how it failed to take seriously it's strong and obvious religion angle. Let's start with the "probably" angle in a lede -- atop a story with a near miraculous fact that slid down a few paragraphs. 

By the time he was drafted and deployed to Italy in 1945, Larry Hilte was probably familiar with one of the most popular songs of the World War II era, "Comin' in on a Wing and a Prayer."
The lyrics of the song describe the plight of desperate airmen trying to find their way back from bombing runs over enemy territory in airplanes either shot full of holes, on fire or both.
Little did the Towson resident know then that 70 years later his prayer book, which fell from the Consolidated B-24 Liberator he rode on a mission over Europe in the final months of World War II, would find its own safe landing. Hilte does not know exactly when the prayer book fell from the plane, and, at this point, it doesn't really matter.

Right. The details of a pop song the veteran may or may not have known are more important than the personal details linked to his "Jesus Teach Me to Pray" prayer book that fell from the sky onto a house, where it was retrieved and ended up, decades later, in a flea market.

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BBC pro visits 46 churches during Lent and shares what he saw, heard and felt

BBC pro visits 46 churches during Lent and shares what he saw, heard and felt

So here is a bonus think piece for this holiday, one of the most delicate and delightful pieces I have read in quite some time. Thank you to the folks (yes, hello GetReligion co-founder Douglas LeBlanc) who pointed it out.

The concept is rather simple and it's crucial to know that this was not an attempt to dig into religion NEWS, so much as religion CULTURE at the level of parishes and pews. So BBC broadcaster Adrian Chiles -- a convert to Catholicism -- decided to take on a unique Lenten discipline this spring, vowing to attend church for 46 days in a row.

The result: "What I learnt from 46 consecutive days in church." Let's let him pick up the narration near the top, as he explains the rules:

 I'm a Catholic, so it would be Mass every day for more than a month. It felt like it would be a real struggle -- a penance. It turned out to be anything but. It was a rich and enriching experience -- spiritually, obviously, but I was also enraptured by the churches themselves, the communities they serve, and the people with whom I shared all those Masses.
I made it extra hard for myself by undertaking to go to a different church every day, so by Easter Sunday I'd been before 46 different priests in 46 different churches in 46 days.

There is no way to summarize this piece, to be honest with you. His observations about art, people, preaching, etc., must be read in context.

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Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

Scandal! Sikh man removes his turban in order to follow teachings of his faith!

As we all know, religious doctrines are bad. Thus, breaking them is good. That seems to be the implication of a bizarre AOL.com news item -- a piece of aggregation, actually -- sent to your GetReligionistas the other day.

The key, as in many mistakes involving aggregated news, is that the writer appears to have spent zero time or energy investigating the facts of the story. In fact, it appears that the AOL desk didn't even pay that much attention to the New Zealand Herald story it was slicing and dicing. The goal was a conflict-driven click-friendly headline: "Sikh man breaks religious rules, removes his turban to help an injured boy." As a reader noted:

The title and the bulk of the article attempt to create a conflict between the "rules" of religion and real compassion. On the plus side, the article does note that "the Sikh religion makes exceptions for taking off a turban in emergencies," yet it still plays up the phony conflict.

Let's look at two pieces of this short item:

A New Zealand Sikh put religion aside and took off his turban to help an injured child.
The New Zealand Herald reports 22-year-old Harman Singh saw a 5-year-old boy had been struck by a car outside of his home Friday. Despite religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban and show his hair in public, Singh didn't hesitate to take off his headdress and cushion the bleeding child's head.

You have to love the "put religion aside" reference and the reference to "religious beliefs not permitting him to remove his turban." The key word is "permitting."

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Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

Church planting in Boston: Brilliant Alternet satire or, well, something else?

When I was a lad back in the early 1960s, my father left his work as a Southern Baptist pastor in inner-city Dallas and took a position in North Texas, near the base of the Panhandle, that was often referred to as an "associational missionary." It helps to know that Southern Baptists have regional "associations," as opposed to conferences, presbyteries or dioceses.

One of the primary duties of this associational leader, in addition to serving as a pastor or consultant to the region's pastors, was to direct efforts in what has long been called "church planting." The goal was to figure out logical places to "plant" effective new churches and then help people do precisely that. Click here for a rather mainstream take on this topic, from a middle-of-the-road Protestant flock up in Canada.

There was nothing sneaky or threatening about this work, at least not in Texas a half century ago.

It seems that times have changed, at least in some blue zip codes. Either that, or some journalists simply have zero familiarity with how church leaders think and talk? Yeah, that could be what we are dealing with here.

But maybe not! As several people have noted in emails to me -- including a former GetReligionista known as a wit -- the following Alternet piece may not, as it appears, be a stunningly tone-deaf look at a perfectly normal church topic.

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Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers mean?

Increase of non-religious Americans: What do Pew Forum numbers mean?

JOSHUA’S QUESTION:

Ed Stetzer suggests the rise of the “nones” -- the religiously unaffiliated -- is a dual trend. On the one hand, the more nominal “cultural Christians” are no longer self-identifying as Christians, and on the other hand the more theologically conservative Christians are becoming more robust. What are the political consequences?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Following Joshua’s posting, the Pew Research Center issued an attention-getting “Religious Landscape Study” of the U.S. that appears to support such a scenario. Introductory notes: “Nones” is shorthand for folks who say “none” when pollsters ask about their religious self-identity. The Pew study calls them “unaffiliated,” whether agnostic, atheist, or the largest subgroup,  those whose religious identity is “nothing in particular.” Stetzer is a church planter turned LifeWay researcher and seminary teacher on mission analysis.

Pew has produced a mass of data that will be chewed on for years. A huge sample size of 35,071 U.S. adults made possible accurate and detailed breakdowns for religious groups. The respondents were interviewed in mid-2014 by phone in either English or Spanish. Unlike most polling with its crude categories, scholars helped Pew frame careful questions to separate out “mainline” Protestants (in 65 sub-categories) from the more conservative “evangelicals.” Keep in mind that there are also significant numbers of self-identified “evangelicals” in “mainline” groups, and in the third Protestant category of “historically black” churches. Since Pew posed these same questions to another large sample in 2007, it can offer timeline comparisons.

The two surveys show that, yes, the “unaffiliated” are increasing. They constituted 16.1 percent of the population in 2007 and jumped to 22.8 percent as of 2014 to become the nation’s second-largest religious category. Evangelical Protestants maintain first place with 25.4 percent of Americans versus the previous 26.3 percent.

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Weekend think piece: A podcast on Pew Forum ink, church stats and boredom

Weekend think piece: A podcast on Pew Forum ink, church stats and boredom

Like many of our readers, I have been digging into tons of coverage of the new Pew Forum study (full .pdf document here) offering an update on the growth of the "nones" and the cultural-left coalition of religious liberals, agnostics, atheists, "spiritual but not religious" believers and simple unaffiliated people.

As our own Julia Duin noted the other day, the basic theme in the mainstream coverage is that the number of self-proclaimed "Christians" in America is falling, quickly. That's a totally valid, if a rather old and much-reported story.

Also, I noted another old story, which is the fact that the number of religious believers who say they are actively PRACTICING their faith seems to be rather stable. The numbers are level in some pews, slightly down in some (think Southern Baptists), way down in others (think liberal Protestantism and cultural Catholics) and actually rising in a few (think Pentecostalism). The importance of growing ministries to Latinos, African-Americans and Asians is another news story, at the moment.

This was, as you would imagine, the subject of this week's "Crossroads" podcast. However, after host Todd Wilken and I talked -- click here to tune that in -- it hit me that there is another way to frame this debate. In part, Christian leaders are arguing over whether churches grow when they are (a) culturally modernized and less doctrinally demanding or (b) when they hold firm to ancient doctrinal standards and, in many ways, reject trends in the modern world. Then, after that, it hit me that many modern churches -- think evangelical megachurches -- seem to be striving to look and sound modern, while claiming to stay orthodox at the level of morality and doctrine. So that is, kind of, a (c) approach, in their eyes.

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