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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Ah, the journalistic beauty — and boredom — of Mormon leadership succession

On the religion beat, it doesn’t get any better than a papal election. The international media go bonkers with speculation on who’s up or down in the cardinals’ secret maneuvering to select the next occupant of Peter’s throne, accompanied by sidebars on the arcane process, and culminating in those twice-daily gatherings in Peter’s square to watch for chemically-induced white smoke.

Analysis of the papabile (“pope-able”) personalities often turns out to be amusingly off-base. (You can forgive the Religion Guy for noting that Time magazine was the only major medium to name John Paul II as a prospect in 1978, because total credit goes not to yours truly as the New York religion writer but to crackerjack correspondents back when the weekly operated a Rome Bureau.)  

By contrast, contemplate the journalistic beauty –- and boredom –- in picking a new head of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. “Mormon”).  If reporters have the time this week, they can already update their prepared  articles on the man who will take charge upon the death of President Thomas S. Monson, who turns 88 on August 21.

(At the church-owned daily Deseret News, Monson was an ad executive and later general manager of its parent publishing and printing firm. The church operates without professional clergy so that, remarkably, its doctrinal authorities have secular careers minus the academic training in theology expected of the average Protestant parson or Catholic parish priest.)  

 As Godbeat veterans will be well aware, the new president is automatically the man (yes, necessarily a male) with the earliest date of admission into the LDS church’s governing Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. It’s as though the longest-serving cardinal would always become the next pope.

On July 3, the Salt Lake City succession was altered for the first time since 2008 by the death of Boyd K. Packer, 90, who spent half his lifetime as an apostle and thus, the Salt Lake Tribune obit noted, was long “within a breath of leading the worldwide faith.” The onetime Mormon education overseer was an elbows-out conservative, so analysts figured he might well have been a notable newsmaker with crackdowns and denunciations. The Trib characterized him as a “theological purist,” “sometimes-stern speaker,” and “tough-talking administrator.”

Until businessman-turned-apostle L. Tom Perry  died on May 30 at age 92, he would have been next in line after Packer. Now Monson’s successor will instead be Russell M. Nelson, M.D., who  formerly directed thoracic surgery residency at the University of Utah and chaired that department at LDS Hospital.  If the 90-year-old Nelson were to die, Monson’s successor would be another high performer, Dallin H. Oaks, a relatively youthful and vigorous 82-year-old. He was formerly a University of Chicago law professor, president of Brigham Young University, and Utah Supreme Court justice.

A church press release boasts that due to this automatic system, power passes “in an orderly way that – remarkably in today’s world – avoids any trace of internal lobbying for position or rank.” Put another way, instead of spiritualized lobbying at the time other big religious posts open, with the Mormons it would have occurred many years beforehand when new apostles were first appointed. Monson and his fellows are now engaged in that process as they fill the Perry and Packer vacancies.

In the LDS system it’s almost always the case that the incoming president is aged, and  occasionally infirm, with the possibility  unmentioned in LDS publicity   that the faith’s unique “prophet, seer, and revelator” might have dangerously weak command of his faculties.

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Louisville Courier-Journal offers a case study in biased media coverage of same-sex marriage

Louisville Courier-Journal offers a case study in biased media coverage of same-sex marriage

Here at GetReligion, we advocate a traditional American model of journalism — one that relies on a fair, impartial reporting of news.

Last week, I highlighted the difficulty that some media organizations experienced applying that concept to the U.S. Supreme Court's 5-4 decision in favor of same-sex marriage:

After I wrote that post, I came across a Louisville Courier-Journal story that epitomizes the biased nature of many reports on this subject.

Let's start at the top of this puffy profile of a Baptist pastor who supports same-sex marriage:

The Rev. Jason Crosby, a controversial local Baptist gay rights advocate whose church was kicked out of the Kentucky Southern Baptist Convention last year for agreeing to officiate same-sex marriages, spent the weekend celebrating.
"This has been more of an emotional journey for me than I'd ever have imagined," said the Rev. Jason Crosby, the pastor of Crescent Hill Baptist Church, one hour after the Supreme Court ruled Friday in the favor of allowing same-sex couples to legally marry across the country. "I can't even begin to imagine how elated people must be feeling today, after the grueling times they've endured."
Crosby said four couples got in touch with him — within minutes of the historic ruling Friday — to ask if they could marry in the church, 2800 Frankfort Ave. "I'm thrilled we've opened the door to more joy. We've opened the floodgates to celebrate the love that people find in different ways."
Crescent Hill is one of two Baptist churches in Louisville that were dismissed from the Southern Baptist Convention for their welcoming position on homosexuals last year. Constant in his position despite the rejection and hatred from his own churchmen, Crosby started conducting gay marriages last November.

Did you catch that last sentence?: Constant in his position despite the rejection and hatred from his own churchmen ...


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After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

After the earthquake(s): National Cathedral seeks lots of money and some kind of new life

Building and operating cathedrals has never been an easy or noncontroversial task. In recent years, several Episcopal Church dioceses have simply given up and closed the doors of their cathedral sanctuaries, often because of the decline of the congregations inside those buildings.

At the same time, far too many Episcopalians on the doctrinal left and the right have been lawyered up for decades, involved in lawsuits that are rooted in disputes about doctrine, but almost always end up focusing on property, buildings, trust funds and sacred assets.

It doesn't help if your cathedral is shaken by a literal earthquake, as well as the tremors of lawsuits and demographics. As most journalists know who follow trends in American religion, membership in the Episcopal Church has declined from about 3.6 million in the glory days of the '60s to about 1.8 million today.

This brings us to a recent New York Times story talking about the struggles to rebuild the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. -- both the earthquake-damaged sanctuary and the human congregation in its pews. Here are the crucial summary paragraphs that set the stage:

Almost four years after a magnitude-5.8 earthquake shook the site -- cracking finials and half a dozen flying buttresses and sending pieces of pinnacles tumbling hundreds of feet -- the National Cathedral is struggling to piece itself back together, physically and financially, even as contractors put the finishing touches on the $10 million first phase of repairs to the interior.
Before the earthquake damage, years of shortsightedness by church leaders, little known to outsiders, left the cathedral in need of millions of dollars in repairs and exposed to the worst of the 2008-09 financial crisis, when it had to cut its budget in half and lay off almost 100 out of its 170 full-time employees.

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Pope Francis travels to South America to talk climate change (and, maybe, Jesus)

Pope Francis travels to South America to talk climate change (and, maybe, Jesus)

Once again, the pope is travelling. This means that, once again, readers get to observe one of the iron-clad laws that govern religion-news coverage at work.

This chunk of the mainstream journalism Grand Unified Theory states that, no matter what the pope cites as his reasons for visiting a land or region, he is actually there for political reasons. He is there in an attempt to impact the lives of real people through political ideas or actions (as opposed to through sacraments, biblical truth, etc.) Then again, he might be there because of something that is going on in church politics. Reporters are allowed to consider that option.

In this case, Pope Francis is back home in South America where, in a welcoming ceremony at Ecuador’s Quito International airport. he offered the following reasons for this trip:

Pope Francis ... spoke to a delegation which included Ecuador’s president, Rafael Correa, government authorities, and his fellow bishops. The Pope told the delegation that his reason for coming to Ecuador was to be “a witness of God’s mercy and of faith in Jesus Christ.”

Wait. That isn't the reason for the journey quoted in your main news source?

Oh, right. That quote is from the Catholic News Agency report, which actually used a lede that combined both the sacred and the secular language from the Pope Francis arrival rite.

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Gag-rule drama: Oregon 'Sweet Cakes' story needs fresher, in-depth treatment

Gag-rule drama: Oregon 'Sweet Cakes' story needs fresher, in-depth treatment

On the heels of the Supreme Court’s June 26 5-4 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states comes a ruling by Oregon’s state labor commissioner lowering the boom on a couple who refused to bake a wedding cake for two lesbians in early 2013.

This is a really interesting church-state story and numerous readers have email your GetReligionistas asking when we would deal with it. Once again, the goal is to look at the coverage of this issue, not the issue itself. Let's give that a try.

Here is how The Oregonian worded it:

The owners of a shuttered Gresham bakery must pay $135,000 in damages to a lesbian couple for refusing to make them a wedding cake, the state's top labor official said Thursday.
State Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian ordered Aaron and Melissa Klein to pay the women for emotional and mental suffering that resulted from the denial of service. The Kleins had cited their Christian beliefs against same-sex marriage in refusing to make the cake.
Avakian's ruling upheld a preliminary finding earlier this year that the Kleins, owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa, had discriminated against the Portland couple on the basis of their sexual orientation.
The case ignited a long-running skirmish in the nation's culture wars, pitting civil rights advocates against religious freedom proponents who argued business owners should have the right to refuse services for gay and lesbian weddings.

I looked at a previous story by the same reporter on April 24 and here’s how the lead sentence ran there:

The lesbian couple turned away by a Gresham bakery that refused to make them a wedding cake for religious reasons should receive $135,000 in damages for their emotional suffering, a state hearings officer says.

Notice the crucial difference?

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First gay marriage, now two spouses: Government and media react tentatively

First gay marriage, now two spouses: Government and media react tentatively

Well, that didn't take long. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled on June 26 that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right. A mere four days later, a nationally known bigamist applied for a marriage license for his second mate.

He's a familiar face, and so are his women. They were on the TLC cable show Sister Wives. Now Nathan and Victoria Collier want to make their relationship with Christine legal.

Their inspiration? Chief Justice John Roberts of the Supreme Court, who predicted this could happen.

The county clerks in Billings, Montana don’t quite know how to react. Neither do some mainstream media. Says the Associated Press:

The Supreme Court's ruling on Friday made gay marriages legal nationwide. Chief Justice John Roberts said in his dissent that people in polygamous relationships could make the same legal argument that not having the opportunity to marry disrespects and subordinates them.
Collier, 46, said that dissent inspired him. He owns a refrigeration business in Billings and married Victoria, 40, in 2000. He and his second wife, Christine, had a religious wedding ceremony in 2007 but did not sign a marriage license to avoid bigamy charges, he said.

Collier didn't shy away from liberal terms. "It's about marriage equality," he told AP. "You can't have this without polygamy." He's also asking Montana's ACLU chapter to step in.

The clerks first denied the application, then said they'd ask the county attorney's office.  If the state doesn't budge, Collier says he'll sue.

AP is less definite. Twice it mentions Collier's "wives," and twice it calls Christine his second wife, as if everyone agrees with those labels.

The story has a few other soft spots. AP quotes Anne Wilde, a co-founder of a pro-polygamy group in Utah. It doesn't spell out why it asked her, although we could guess it's because Collier was excommunicated from the mainline Mormon Church for his two women.

Wilde tells AP that polygamous families in Utah don’t want multiple marriage licenses:

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Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

Getting out of civil marriage biz? Tribune details one side of debate in Chicago

Several months ago, I heard about an interesting decision made by Father Patrick Henry Reardon, a very outspoken and influential Eastern Orthodox priest up in the Chicago area. After the state of Illinois approved the redefinition of marriage -- including same-sex unions -- Reardon decided that he would get out of the civil marriage business and stop signing secular marriage licenses.

This was, for Reardon, an intensely theological subject and he was most comfortable discussing the topic in those terms. It was a challenge to quote him in ways that were accurate, yet could be included in a column for readers in mainstream newspapers. This was pretty complex territory.

The priest knew, of course, that a U.S. Supreme Court on this subject loomed in the near future and he assumed that it would complicate matters even further, especially in terms of the First Amendment and religious liberty. But the key, for him, was that he was discussing a sacrament of the church and doctrines on which he could not compromise. Thus, I ended my Universal syndicate column on this topic like this:

At his altar, said Reardon, this means, "I cannot represent the State of Illinois anymore. … I'm not making a political statement. I'm making a theological statement."

I also quoted the American leader of the branch of Orthodoxy in which Reardon serves, who, while not directly addressing the issue of civil marriage licenses, made it clear that his church would not be taking part in a major reshaping of marriage.

The upcoming Supreme Court decision could "mark a powerful affirmation of marriage between one man and one woman … or it can initiate a direction which the Holy Orthodox Church can never embrace," stated Metropolitan Joseph, of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America. "Throughout the history of our faith our Holy Fathers have led the Orthodox laity" to unite to "preserve the faith against heresy from within, and against major threats from societies from without."

For me, as an Orthodox layman, the most interesting part of that statement were the words focusing on the church and the theological tensions that are ahead, the part when the metropolitan mentions the struggles to "preserve the faith against heresy from within."

Heresy is not a word that bishops toss around without careful thought.

Now, in the wake of the 5-4 Obergefell decision by Justice Anthony Kennedy and the U.S. Supreme Court, the Chicago Tribune has followed up with a news report about Reardon that does a good job of describing his decision, yet does very little to dig into the thoughts and beliefs of those who either oppose or dismiss his strategy. Consider, for example, this passage in which an Orthodox bishop seems to echo, in reverse, some of Reardon's thinking:

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Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

Weekend think piece: Probing post-Obergefell fault lines in Christian higher education

The vast majority of the time, GetReligion features critiques -- positive and negative -- of mainstream press coverage of religion news. However, in recent years we have started adding some other features by veteran religion-beat specialists Richard Ostling and Ira Rifkin that address Godbeat work in short features that we think will be of interest to people who care about domestic and international trends in religion -- period -- or who are professionals on the beat.

In the "Religion Guy Memo," for example, I have asked Ostling to serve as kind of Metro desk sage, a veteran editor talking about issues related to the beat the way an editor might chat with a religion-beat scribe over a cup of coffee. As any reporter knows, a good editor helps you discern what stories "have legs" and what stories may be just over the horizon.

That is what Rifkin is doing in "Global Wire," as well, focusing on questions raised by recent events around the world or, on occasion, trying to spot slow developing stories that may be on the rise, or those that are about to pop into the open.

On weekends, I also like to share what I call "think pieces" -- links to pieces about developments on the beat or essays by religion insiders who are clearly trying to discern what will happen in the news in the near or distant future. All reporters have writers and thinkers that they follow online, seeking clues about future stories. Think Pew Forum folks. Think John C. Green of the University of Akron. For decades, Martin Marty of the University of Chicago was THE go-to brain for religion-beat pros. I mean, the man answered his own telephone!

You don't have to agree with this kind of insider in order to draw information from them. The key is that they have some unique insight into developments within specific religious communities. They can read the spiritual weather forecasts, in other words. It also helps if they speak common English, instead of inside-baseball jargon.

So with that in mind, please consider this new essay about a topic that -- for obvious reasons -- is of great interest to me as a writer and as a teacher. That would be trends in Christian higher education in the wake of the recent 5-4 Obergefell decision on gay marriage at the U.S. Supreme Court.

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