Steubenville: Ties between rape and 'fundamentalist' teens?

Your GetReligionistas don't spend much time digging around in the growing world of first-person, advocacy journalism. We realize that opinion is cheap and reporting new information is expensive and that managers of many websites are going to do what they are going to do, which is print more and more opinion pieces about big news events. This is the new reality, but that doesn't mean we have to like it.

However, recently ran a first-person essay about that sensational rape case in Steubenville, Ohio, that really deserved the negative attention given it by LifeWay Research pollster and evangelical social-media maven Ed Stetzer (click here for his post). More on that train wreck in a moment.

I've been reading, with horror of course, much of the coverage of this trial -- waiting for some kind of religion-news shoe to drop. When reporters described the sharp divisions present in Steubenville, and the bitter public debates about the case, I kept waiting for someone to contrast the local sex-and-booze football party culture with the city's other famous, and truly countercultural, institution. That would be Franciscan University of Steubenville, a thriving campus that is known as a center for conservative forms of Catholicism, including the Catholic charismatic movement.

Franciscan is very well known locally, nationally and internationally, in part because of the stunning number of young women and men there who choose to become nuns, sisters, brothers and priests. Readers interested in church-state issues may recall recent fights over whether the city could keep an image of the Franciscan cross in its official civic seal.

Anyway, the nation's media have -- for better or for worse -- managed to cover the rape trial without pulling the views of the faith community into the picture. The key to this event, most seem to agree, is the power of social media in the lives of the young. Here's the top of a powerful New York Times piece on the verdicts:

STEUBENVILLE, Ohio -- Two high school football stars were found guilty on Sunday of raping a 16-year-old girl last summer in a case that drew national attention for the way social media spurred the initial prosecution and later helped galvanize national outrage.

Because the victim did not remember what had happened, scores of text messages and cellphone pictures provided much of the evidence. They were proof as well, some said, that Steubenville High School’s powerhouse football team held too much sway over other teenagers, who documented and traded pictures of the assault while doing little or nothing to protect the girl.

This nightmare may not be over, precisely because of the way the social-media threads spread out into the community. The judge warned that:

... (T)he case was a cautionary lesson in how teenagers conduct themselves when alcohol is present and in “how you record things on social media that are so prevalent today.” The trial also exposed the behavior of other teenagers, who wasted no time spreading photos and text messages with what many in the community felt was callousness or cruelty.

And that aspect of the case may not be complete. The Ohio attorney general, Mike DeWine, said after the verdict that he would convene a grand jury next month to finish the investigation. ... The verdict came after four days of testimony that was notable for how Ohio investigators analyzed hundreds of text messages from more than a dozen cellphones and created something like a real-time accounting of the assault.

Like I said, this is horrible stuff.

So what does this have to do with religion? That's where a piece by freelance writer Molly McCluskey comes into the picture. The headline?

My Steubenville

It was a base for the teen evangelical movement, where I saw fundamentalist Christianity's power, and its danger

Wait a minute.

Steubenville is some kind of center for evangelical and fundamentalist Protestantism? As Stetzer notes, since when? And what does the region's deep stream of moral conservatism have to do with the football-and-booze culture?

Well, it appears that morally conservative Christianity is really, really bad. And rape is really, really bad. Thus, these two things must be connected.

Check out the opening of the piece:

Few people had ever heard of Steubenville, Ohio, until a shocking act of violence catapulted the small town onto the national stage. What most people don’t know is that Steubenville is home to North America’s largest evangelical teen gathering, and for three days each summer in high school, I joined them.

Back at home, youth group was a place to meet friends and participate in community service. There were beach parties and Christmas caroling. I met my first boyfriend.

Steubenville was Christianity ratcheted up, with the sort of weeping adoration one usually sees at concerts of preteen idols. At Steubenville, we were zealots. A team. We had our chants, our cheers, our rallying call. I can still summon the refrain of the evangelical anthem “Refiner’s Fire,” although I wouldn’t be able to recall my high school’s fight song even if someone handed me the lyrics. I’ve been imprinted. I consented to going without realizing what I was getting into, and once I knew, I went still. It was one of the few times each year I could step away from the confines of my conservative Catholic upbringing. I stepped deeper into that world, and the rules that governed it, without even noticing.

First of all, there are many giant events held every year for evangelical Protestant teens and college students and none of them are in Steubenville. Nevertheless, it appears likely that the writer thinks she is talking about evangelical Protestantism, because she stresses that this evangelical event was one of the only times in the year in which she could "step away from the confines of my conservative Catholic upbringing." Right? Or does she think that there are no differences between fundamentalist Protestantism and conservative Catholicism?

The event itself is described in this manner:

We gathered in seminars to discuss celibacy. We listened to seemingly savvy college students discuss how Jesus had made all things possible for them. We were told, repeatedly, that we were part of a community, we were loved, we were safe. We were blessed, and were the blessed.

There was a darker side, of course, to this exclusivity, and a double-edged sword to the conferences’ messages. Looking back, I remember a staggering number of people just like me; white, middle-class, suburban, straight. We were regaled with literal interpretations of the Bible. We heard lectures on the sanctity of life in all its forms, the perils of evil, on God’s plan for marriage. We were told that God had a purpose for us, that we were part of a larger community of believers who would be sheltered as long as we led a pure life. We left thinking that nothing bad could ever happen, or if it did, we could survive the test to have a closer relationship with God, as narrowly defined.

You got it, folks, they even talked about abstinence, celibacy and moral purity -- while teens flirted with an innocence that, looking back, leaves the writer appalled. And there were calls for conversion and there were charismatic believers who spoke in unknown tongues and other phenomena sure to shock people who know nothing about Pentecostalism, the fastest growing form of Christian faith in the modern world.

But readers have to be thinking that they are dealing with evangelicals, fundamentalists and Pentecostal Protestants. Right?

But then there is this.

We rocked out to Christian music with our hands in the air, watched people convulse in spiritual conversions as they were “saved” or “born again” and heard priests speak in tongues. There was holy water on hand for blessings and baptisms. Being surrounded by people weeping in adoration, or jabbering to spirits, I could only be a detached observer. I simply didn’t get it. It was a baffling other language, one I did not care to learn.

Priests? Holy water? So this giant evangelical, fundamentalist rally is being led by priests who do sacramental rites? Did anyone at check the facts in this piece at all?

At this point, the article evolves into a pretty straightforward critique of the author's own journey out of conservative Catholicism. In a way, it starts to make sense, if you enjoy one-sided attacks on a major faith group. Like I said, this is first-person, advocacy journalism.

But here is the big question: What does any of this have to do with the rape case, with this era of alcohol-fueled social media sins?

The story of Steubenville has captivated the nation, and with cause. The casual brutality of it, the shocking way the spectators related the events on camera, later spread via social media. It’s a horrifying reminder that we were all young once, and vulnerable. That girl was 16, too, and the Steubenville she saw was a much darker place than the one I experienced. Her tale rips me up, because she was victim of a culture that was not safe, where football was the religion and the boys were the chosen ones. Not everyone can leave Steubenville on the back of a bus.

I was lucky I could. I was lucky that I could move on from my own closed world.

So there we have it. There is no connection at all, really, other than that this author has experienced Steubenville and it is a place in which there are two truly scary subcultures and one, the rape-booze-football-sexting culture, is a bit more dangerous than the other. These two cultures must be connected, somehow, even though the conservative Catholic culture would condemn the hellish acts that are causing the national headlines.

Read it all. Then join me in asking: What is the journalistic purpose of this piece? How do the facts in the rape case connect to the at times skewed "facts" in the piece about this evangelical, fundamentalist youth culture? How do the facts connect in the minds of the editors who published this essay?

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