Church & State

Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

Three weekend reads: Another #MeToo case for SBC, faith-based adoption and Bible teacher Jimmy Carter

After a week in Puerto Rico on a Christian Chronicle reporting trip, I'm still catching up on my sleep — and my reading.

Speaking of reading, here are three interesting religion stories from the last few days.

The first concerns the latest #MeToo case facing the Southern Baptist Convention. The second is an in-depth analysis of religious freedom vs. gay rights in taxpayer-funded adoption and foster care. The third is a feature on the Sunday school class in Plains, Ga., taught by former President Jimmy Carter.

1. Southern Baptist officials knew of sexual abuse allegations 11 years before leader’s arrest

Sarah Smith, an investigative reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, delves into how the Southern Baptist Convention's International Mission Board handled allegations that a 25-year-old seminary student sexually assaulted a 16-year-old girl.

A crucial question: Why didn't the board report the matter to police?

Smith meticulously reports the facts of the case and gives all the relevant parties ample space and opportunity to comment, even if some choose not to do so or to issue brief statements that shed little light. This is a solid piece of journalism.

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'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

'Usual suspects' offer Kavanaugh reactions: Can reporters find any new religious voices?

Yes, it's time (trigger warning) to take another trip into the past with a rapidly aging religion-beat scribe. That would be me.

I hope this anecdote will help readers understand my point of view on some of the coverage, so far, of how "religious leaders" are reacting to the nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. Click here for GetReligionista Julia Duin's initial post on this topic.

Let me stress that, in this case, I certainly think that it's appropriate to seek out the views of religious leaders who are in public life. In recent years, big rulings on church-state cases -- most linked to the First Amendment -- have rocked American politics and culture. There's no doubt about it: This is a religion-beat story.

But how do reporters decide which "usual suspects" to round up, when flipping through their files trying to decide who to quote?

So here is my flashback to the mid-1980s, while I was working at the late Rocky Mountain News. The setting is yet another press conference in which leaders of the Colorado Council of Churches gathered to address a hot-button news topic. If I remember correctly, it had something to do with immigration.

If you look at the current membership of this Colorado group, it's pretty much the same as it was then -- with one big exception. Back then, the CCC was made up of the usual suspects, in terms of liberal Protestantism, but the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver was cooperating in many ways (although, if I remember correctly, without covenant/membership ties). Today, the CCC includes an independent body called the Ecumenical Catholic Communion, which I have never heard of before. Needless to say, this is not the Catholic archdiocese.

So at this press conference, all of the religious leaders made their statements and most talked about diversity, stressing that they represented a wide range of churches.

In the question-and-answer session, I asked what I thought was a relevant question. I asked if -- other than the Catholic archdiocese -- any of them represented flocks that had more members in the 1980s than they did in the '60s or '70s. In other words, did they represent groups with a growing presence in the state (like the Assemblies of God, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints)?

One or two of the clergy laughed. The rest stared at me like I was a rebellious child.

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Brett Kavanaugh's Georgetown Catholicity wasn't a huge factor in first-day coverage

Brett Kavanaugh's Georgetown Catholicity wasn't a huge factor in first-day coverage

Well, there was no lack of faith talk during President Donald Trump’s announcement yesterday of his Supreme Court justice pick, and all of it was perfectly normal.

We heard the name of the Catholic parish nominee Brett Kavanaugh attends and the fact that he coaches a Catholic Youth Organization basketball team. We heard a little bit about his inspirational Georgetown educational ties.

The bottom line: I wondered why the nominee was so upfront about his faith. Some media outlets picked this up, but a lot did not.

Mother Jones got the same impression I did in an intriguing piece about the nominee's subliminal efforts to appeal to the social justice crowd.

Kavanaugh’s speech diverged from his predecessors in one key aspect: extensive reference to his Catholic faith, including a special shout-out to one of Washington, DC’s most beloved religious leaders, Monsignor John Enzler. 

Justice Neil Gorsuch, who attended the same Jesuit high school as Kavanaugh, vaguely thanked “my family, my friends and my faith” but failed to mention his Catholic upbringing when he accepted Trump’s nomination last year. Neither did Chief Justice John RobertsJustice Sonia Sotomayor, or Justice Clarence Thomas in their first remarks as nominees. Not even the late Justice Antonin Scalia, a proudly devout Catholic who counted a priest among his sons, mentioned religion during his swearing-in ceremony.

Kavanaugh brought up Catholicism at several points in his 857-word speech, but reserved special attention for John Enzler, known as “Father John,” a legend in DC Catholic circles. 

America Magazine, with its Jesuit ties, offered the best summary of the nominee’s Catholic bonafides: 

During his remarks, Mr. Kavanaugh highlighted his Catholic faith and Jesuit connections.

 “The motto of my Jesuit high school was ‘men for others,’” Mr. Kavanaugh said, referencing Georgetown Preparatory School, from which he graduated in 1983. “I have tried to live that creed.”


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National Review offers in-depth look at BYU's religious freedom and media conference

National Review offers in-depth look at BYU's religious freedom and media conference

It's summer, which means that your GetReligionistas -- like many other folks -- are spread out all over the place.

One or two are outside of the United States (think rainforests) and others are on the move for family reasons, etc. In a week or so, I head over to Prague for lectures during this summer's European Journalism Institute.

Like I said, it's summer and these things happen, creating occasional gaps in what we publish.

So, instead of a Friday Five collection from Bobby Ross, Jr., let's flash back a bit to his round-up about the religious freedom and journalism event that recently took Ross, and me, out to the law school at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Click here to flash back to Bobby'r Friday Five wrap on that.

In the weeks ahead, speeches and panels from that event will go online. You really, for example, want to see the keynote speech in the media track, by Emma Green of The Atlantic. Watch updated versions of this space and this one, too, as the links go live. Here is a Facebook link for the "Getting It Right" panel shown in the tweet at the top of this post.

Now, if you want to read an extended piece about this conference, click here for the National Review feature -- by Utah-based scribe Betsy VanDenBerghe -- that just ran with this headline: "Religious-Freedom and LGBT Advocates Offer Rare Lessons in Pluralism." Here is the overture:

In late June, as the United States descended into a high-combustion immigration debate marked by a degree of rancor extraordinary even for an era characterized by discord, an alternate universe quietly unfolded in which cultural-political rivals of goodwill came together to discuss an equally contentious issue: the tension between religious freedom and LGBT rights.

Resuscitating such old-school notions as common ground and fairness for all, the fifth Religious Freedom Annual Review, hosted by the Brigham Young University International Center for Law and Religion Studies in Provo, Utah, gathered legal scholars, LGBT advocates, journalists, and concerned Christian, Jewish, and Muslim leaders to grapple over court cases, questions about higher education and journalistic fairness, and -- surprise! -- common feelings of vulnerability.


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Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

Tick, tick, tick: Will Donald Trump play the 'handmaiden' card, lighting a SCOTUS fuse?

The clock is ticking and the news coverage is heating up. At this point, for religion-beat pros, there's only one question that matters: Will Donald Trump GO THERE? Will he nominate the "loud dogma" candidate who will make heads explode in the liberal Catholic and secular politicos camps? We are, of course, talking about Judge Amy Coney Barrett. 

However, there is a rather cynical possibility linked to this story, an angle explored in this week's "Crossroads" podcast. Click here to tune that in.

You see, Trump needs to fire up voters for the midterm elections. In particular, he needs evangelical Protestants and pro-Catechism Catholics to turn out in droves, to help rescue the GOP from, well, Trump's unique ability in infuriate half of America (especially in elite zip codes and newsrooms).

So what if he nominated Barrett and let the blue-culture masses go crazy?

What if he unleashed that storm, knowing that the moral, cultural and religious left will not be able to restrain itself?

What a scene! Remember the hearings long ago for Justice Robert Bork -- the SCOTUS seat eventually taken by one Judge Anthony Kennedy -- and this famous speech by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, speaking for the Catholic left and cultural liberals everywhere?

Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists would be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of citizens for whom the judiciary is often the only protector of the individual rights that are the heart of our democracy.

So what would that sound like today, if Barrett has to face her critics once again?

CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin has already prepared that script, in a piece for The New Yorker, describing this future nightmare court:

It will overrule Roe v. Wade, allowing states to ban abortions and to criminally prosecute any physicians and nurses who perform them. It will allow shopkeepers, restaurateurs, and hotel owners to refuse service to gay customers on religious grounds.

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The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

The New York Times 'reports' on an old mantra: Free speech for me, but not for thee

If you are a journalist of a certain age, as well as an old-guard First Amendment liberal, then you remember what it was like trying to get people to understand why you backed ACLU efforts in 1978 to defend the rights of a neo-Nazi group to march through Skokie.

Clearly this march was going to cause pain and emotional suffering, since that Chicago suburb included many Holocaust survivors. But First Amendment liberals stood firm.

If you grew up Southern Baptist in the Bible Belt, it was also hard to explain why you thought Hustler magazine had the right to publish a filthy, sophomoric satire of the Rev. Jerry Falwell, including a fake claim that he had committed incest with his mother in an outhouse.

That case went to the U.S. Supreme Court. As a New York Times report at the time noted, this Hustler piece was clearly satire and the First Amendment wasn't supposed to protect people from feeling offended or even abused by voices in the public square.

The central legal issue is whether, in the absence of the kinds of false statements purporting to be fact on which libel suits are based, a public figure like Mr. Falwell should be able to win damages from a publication that intentionally causes emotional distress through ridicule, tasteless or otherwise.

Several Justices suggested they were grappling with a conflict between the freedom of the press to carry on a long tradition of biting satire, and what Justice Antonin Scalia called the concern that ''good people should be able to enter public life'' without being exposed to wanton abuse in print.

I remember, back then, liberals saying they would be quick to defend the First Amendment rights of conservatives who spoke out on tough, tricky and even offensive issues.

This brings me to one of the most Twitter-friendly stories of this past weekend, a Times report that ran with this rather blunt headline: "Weaponizing the First Amendment: How Free Speech Became a Conservative Cudgel." It's amazing how little religious content is in this report, in light of waves of religious-liberty fights in recent years.

If you are looking for the thesis statement or statements in this article -- which I think was meant to be "news," not analysis -- here it is: 

... Liberals who once championed expansive First Amendment rights are now uneasy about them.


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Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

Beyond Roe, Bork and Trump: Can Americans find a way to discuss hot moral issues?

I am old enough that I can -- if I focus my mind really hard -- remember what our public discourse was like before the Supreme Court became the only issue in American politics that really, ultimately, mattered.

How did America become a nation in which dialogue and compromise is impossible? Why is the U.S. Supreme Court always ground zero on all of this? What role is the mainstream press playing in this painful equation, especially when covering news linked to religious, moral and cultural clashes?

These kinds of questions are at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), which focuses on the painful state of political life in this age of Donald Trump, an age in which the status of the high court is even more controversial than ever, with Kennedy's retirement serving as another fuse on this bomb. 

But let's back up a minute, to when old folks like me were young. 

Yes, the 1960s were wild times, of course. The war in Vietnam was incredibly divisive and the nation was rocked by assassinations. Tragic divisions over race were real and could not be ignored. 

Still, everything changed for millions of Americans on Jan. 22, 1973. From that moment on the status of Roe v. Wade -- political wars over defending or overturning that decision -- loomed over every nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court and every presidential election, as well. 

Then came October 23, 1987 and the vote on the nomination of Judge Robert Bork to the high court. Bork was a former Yale Law School professor (former students included Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham) who embraced and taught originalism -- the legal theory that the U.S. Constitution should be interpreted as written by the founders.

If you want to catch the flavor of the debate over Bork, here is the famous statement by Sen. Ted Kennedy: 


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Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

Is the open U.S. Supreme Court seat a religion story? Do we even need to ask that?

If you live in Washington, D.C., or have sojourned there in the past, then you know that a high percentage of folks in the Beltway chattering classes wake up every morning with a dose of Mike Allen.

This was true in his "Playbook" days at The Politico and it's true now that he has moved on to create the Axios website, which is must-reading in this troubled Donald Trump era.

So if you want to know what DC folks are thinking about -- after King Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement from the U.S. Supreme Court -- then it's logical to do a quick scan of Allen's punchy offerings today in the "Axios AM" digital newsletter (click here to see it in a browser). At this here weblog, that means looking for religion-beat hooks. It doesn't take a lot of effort to find them. For example:

Behind the scenes: Trump doesn’t personally care that much about some of the social issues, such as LGBT rights, energizing the Republican base over the Supreme Court.

But Trump knows how much his base cares about the court. He believes that releasing his list of potential court picks during the campaign was a masterstroke, and helped him win.

What part of the GOP base is Allen talking about? That's obvious. However, journalists covering this angle really need to see if many cultural conservatives are all that interested in rolling back gay-rights victories at the high court.

Most of the people I know understand that this ship has sailed, in post-Christian American culture, and they are primarily interested in seeing a strong court decision defending some kind of conscientious objection status and/or a clear rejection of government compelled speech and artistic expression. In other words, they would like to see an old-school liberal ruling on First Amendment grounds.

As I have said here many times, I know very, very few religious conservatives who wanted to vote for Trump. However, I heard lots of people say something like this: I don't know what Donald Trump is going to do. But I do know what Hillary Rodham Clinton is going to do. I'm going to have to take a risk. They were talking about SCOTUS and the First Amendment.

Back to Allen:

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Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Two prominent namers of names inside DC Beltway warrant in-depth religion profiles

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s Supreme Court retirement throws the spotlight on one of the most influential players in Washington, D.C., when it comes to deciding what individuals inhabit the centers of power.  

We are talking about Leonard Leo, executive vice president of the Federalist Society and the go-to guy for names of federal court appointees when Republicans rule the White House.

Alongside Leo, journalists should also be taking a close look at another Republican networker and talent-spotter, Kay Coles James, as of January the president of the Heritage Foundation. Both are devout Christians, a fact the media have reported. But few reporters have explored that aspect of their life stories in any depth, allowing good prospects for fresh, religiously themed features or interviews.

The Federalist Society, where Leo has worked since 1991, boasts a constituency of some 65,000 conservative attorneys, jurists, and law school students. Justice Neil Gorsuch, who provided the pivotal vote in three important 5-4 Supreme Court rulings this week, was on the lists from which candidate Donald Trump promised to choose his Supreme Court nominees in an unprecedented campaign gambit.

Trump’s prime resource in choosing those names was Leo, as recounted in New Yorker profile by Jeffrey Toobin last year. Toobin says Leo “has met and cultivated almost every important Republican lawyer” of this generation. In addition to Gorsuch, he was the man behind the appointments of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Leo was the chief Catholic strategist for George W. Bush’s re-election in 2004 and co-chaired Catholic outreach for the Republican National Committee. (The Religion Guy covered for The AP his briefing of Catholic delegates attending the party’s New York City convention.) Despite that partisan affiliation, President Barack Obama along with leaders of both parties in Congress appointed him to chair the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

Leo tries to attend daily Mass when possible and his “faith is central to all he does,” says Conor Gallagher of the Benedict Leadership Institute.

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