Academia

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

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Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Mainstream press should look at McCarrick (not conservative Catholics) if there's a schism

Political polarization is nothing new. What about religious polarization? When it comes to matters of faith, specifically the Catholic church and its doctrines, there’s plenty of it these days.

You wouldn’t think there would be much divergence here since adherence to what the church teaches — through the Catechism and centuries of tradition on an array of issues — is the basis for being a member of the Church of Rome. Instead, there is divergence and not just among those sitting in the pews. It’s become all too evident among members of the hierarchy.

To say that the church is at a crossroads isn’t an exaggeration. But fierce arguments between the doctrinal left and right on a host of issues — from Pope Francis’ recent choice of cardinals to how clergy address social issues — are as intense as ever.

But here is the headline right now: Pope Francis has even dared to use a ecclesiastical s-word.”

Yes, that would be schism. That was prompted by a question from The New York Times' Jason Horowitz following the pope’s recent Africa trip. In reporting the Sept. 10 story, Horowitz includes this bit of background :

Critics of Francis, must notably Cardinal Raymond Burke, an American who has been repeatedly demoted by Francis, have argued that Francis’ emphasis on inclusiveness, and his loose approach to church law have confused the faithful on a range of doctrinal issues, from divorce to homosexuality. That critique is frequently aired, in sometimes furious language, on conservative American Catholic television channels and websites.

A former Vatican ambassador to the United States, Carlo Maria Viganò, who demanded the pope’s resignation last year, has been hailed as a hero in some of those circles. Bishop Viganò has in part blamed the child sex abuse crisis on Francis’ tolerance for homosexuals in the priesthood, despite the scandal having first festered and exploded under his conservative predecessors, Benedict XVI and John Paul II.

Some of Francis’ closest allies have in recent months publicly said that he is the target of a conspiracy by conservative enemies who are threatened by the more pastoral direction that he has taken the church. One close adviser, Antonio Spadaro, a prominent Jesuit who edits the Vatican-vetted magazine, Civiltà Cattolica, has accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an unholy alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to help President Trump.

Yes, politics has crept into this divide. But why focus on Catholic media as the source of the discord?

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Mississippi students protest time change for religious group's meeting, sparking a GetReligion question

Mississippi students protest time change for religious group's meeting, sparking a GetReligion question

Now ... is it only important for reporters to keep in mind that ‘The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda,’ or can religious believers have an agenda, too?”

That’s the question that a regular GetReligion reader asked in an email in which he provided links to recent coverage of a religion-related public school protest in Mississippi.

The question follows a post that I wrote last week reminding journalists — not for the first time — that regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.

My quick response to the reader is this: Of course it’s important for reporters to keep that in mind in both cases.

But also, I’d add this: Be sure to contact me the next time a major newspaper does stenography for the Alliance Defending Freedom or a similar religious freedom group on the right. I’ll believe it when I see it.

As for the specific examples that the reader provided — presumably to point out that media coverage can be troubled on the other side of the theological aisle, too — OK, I’ll bite.

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Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Another bizarre twist in the Jerry Falwell Jr. story came Tuesday when the Liberty University president accused former board members and employees of an “attempted coup.”

That claim came a day after a long, negative Politico piece on Falwell quoted two dozen anonymous sources characterized as “current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell.”

How bad are things for Falwell and Liberty?

Well, both of their official Twitter accounts tweeted my GetReligion post from Monday in which I declared, “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.”

If you missed that post, you really should read it before finishing this one. What I am about to say will make much more sense with that background in mind. Also, that post has generated a lot of good discussion along with a few typical troll comments from people who obviously didn’t take time to read what I wrote.

Of course, a few folks on Twitter (here and here, for example) asked if Falwell and Liberty actually read what I wrote.

After all, my post was no fan letter to Falwell.

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Doctrinal covenants? Here's a story in which a newspaper (Seattle Times) actually mentions one

Doctrinal covenants? Here's a story in which a newspaper (Seattle Times) actually mentions one

In post after post over the years, GetReligion writers have commented on why it’s crucial for reporters to explore the contents of doctrinal and lifestyle covenants at private schools.

In most cases, these are actual documents that students and faculty sign before they enroll or are employed. These covenants regulate who teaches, who attends and doctrinal guidelines for their behavior while affiliated with this voluntary, faith-based association.

Think of it as keeping the brand pure.

There’s been a zillion stories about teachers at (usually Catholic) schools who sleep with members of the opposite sex or come out as gay or do something that breaks the covenant and, lo and behold, their institution fires them. And the person reporting on all this never mentions that — before starting work at this school — the teacher or professor signed a document promising to strive to live according to a doctrinal covenant.

If a private school has a covenant, that’s part of the story. If a private school doesn’t have a covenant, that’s part of the story as well.

This past week, a newspaper made history (I joke, but barely) by running a story about a religious private school that (trigger warning) included an actual reference to a covenant.

I am talking about this story that ran in the Seattle Times. Yes, the headline does talk about the ‘anti-gay policy’ at a high school just north of the city. Then there is this:

When students returned to the classrooms at King’s High School in Shoreline last week, something was missing.

Several beloved teachers were no longer there. At least five either felt pushed out or voluntarily quit the private, interdenominational Christian school over summer break in protest of an administrative mandate that they perceived as requiring them to disavow same-sex relationships, both on the job and in their personal lives — and they objected to anti-gay language from Jacinta Tegman, the new leader of King’s parent organization, CRISTA Ministries. …

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Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Undoubtedly, many critics of Jerry Falwell Jr. will love Politico’s long takedown of the controversial Liberty University president.

On Twitter, Jonathan Merritt, for example, called the piece published today a “blistering investigative report” for which the author should win an award.

“It's impossible to pick just one thing to highlight in this … cascade of scoops,” said Ruth Graham.

I’m no Falwell fan myself, and I’d be inclined to agree with the tweets above, except for one major, glaring concern: The writer relies almost entirely on anonymous sources.

“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’,” screams Politico’s headline. “Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”

But they don’t really break their silence — in terms of going on the record and criticizing Falwell.

Politico sets the scene like this:

At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

That’s a lot of sources, yes. But they’d have much more credibility if they had names attached to them. On-the-record sources with names attached have more skin in the game than those granted carte blanche to say whatever they want without their names attached. That’s basic Journalism 101 reality.

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