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When French journalists report on evangelicalism, they often get it wrong

When French journalists report on evangelicalism, they often get it wrong

As a college sophomore, I studied in France; one of the better decisions I made in my life. Visiting religious services helped me grow my vocabulary, so I haunted Assemblies of God, an InterVarsity group and a Sephardic synagogue in Strasbourg; Baptist congregations in Toulouse and Catholic charismatic groups in Paris.

Which is why I was interested in a piece on French evangelicals, written by veteran religion reporter Tom Heneghan — who has been based overseas for as long as I can remember. Back in the ‘70s when I was in college, evangelical Protestants were a tiny minority in France, as basically everyone was Roman Catholic. But the latter was facing lots of empty churches, whereas the former was taking the long view in terms of growing their presence in Europe.

Forty years later, evangelical flocks are much stronger. And, thanks to African immigrants (who have bolstered Protestant churches all over Europe), they’re more black than white. The photo that runs with this piece shows a crowd of mainly African-origin folks.

PARIS (RNS) — When evangelical voters cheer on President Trump in the United States or newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, probably the last thing on their minds is that they might be creating problems for fellow evangelicals elsewhere in the world.

It’s one of the first things that evangelicals in France think about, however, because many other French people instinctively link the small but growing evangelical presence here with large political movements abroad that they don’t like…

Hostile local officials can refuse permission to rent a hall, sponsor a gospel concert or distribute Bibles at a farmers market. Strictly secularist politicians can propose tighter controls on religion in public.

France has a radically different religious history than the United States. The French Revolution was all about freedom from religion; the American experiment was about freedom of religion. So there’s an undercurrent of animosity against religion in France that one doesn’t pick up here across the pond. For many, the true faith is a blend of national pride and secularism.

Plus, their view of evangelicals is tainted by politics. In 2004, Le Nouvel Observateur, a French magazine, called them “the sect that wants to conquer the world.” Its article ran alongside a photo of President George W. Bush standing next to a cross.

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Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

Sikhs, the new lions of the American trucking industry, get some timely coverage

In the category of cool-religion-stories-that-no-one-knows-about, we learn that America’s trucking industry driver shortage is getting some help from an unlikely religious group.

Didn’t know the industry is in trouble? That 48,000 more drivers are needed on America’s highways thanks to burgeoning demand in on-line shopping/shipping services?

If you’ve ever dodged a truck on an interstate, you know there’s a lot of them out there and that anything you wear or eat these days was probably brought to you via truck. So what is the religion angle here?

Sikhs have stepped up to fill the gap. And thanks to stories on Sikh websites and in trucking industry outlets, we can learn why. Here’s from Freight Waves:

The U.S. trucking industry is so massive that not only does it cater to myriads of different verticals, but also houses different ethnicities under its roof, who are part of the industry as truckers, owner-operators, fleet owners, and even as people in gas stations, truck stops, and maintenance sheds. In this mix, the Punjabis or rather the Sikh population have built themselves a bastion in the North American trucking market that is second to none.

Though the terms ‘Punjabi’ and ‘Sikh’ look quite interchangeable, they are essentially entities that cannot be compared on the same breath, as its akin to reasoning out between apples and oranges. Punjab is a geographic region, that is split between the countries of India and Pakistan, the meaning which translates to “the land of the five rivers.” Sikhism however, is a religion that originated in the Punjab region in the 15th century, with most of the followers of the faith living in the Indian part of Punjab.

The U.S. is home to half a million Sikhs, of which the Sikhs Political Action Committee estimates that around 150,000 of them work in the trucking industry - which makes the sector an overwhelming favorite amongst their populace. The statistics are interesting, to say the least. 90% of all the Sikhs in the trade are truckers, and Indians, in general, are ahead of other Asian nations, controlling nearly half of all Asian-owned trucking businesses in America. And as per the findings of the North American Punjabi Trucking Association (NAPTA), California is the ground zero of the Punjabi bulwark, with 40% of truckers in the region being Sikhs.

Readers may need a bit of history to put this in context.

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PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

PBS story on Iran's Jews hurt by failure to fully explain what captive minorities must do to survive

Captive minorities in nations ruled by all-controlling despots play by the rules — or else. Iran’s estimated 9,000-15,000 Jews, one of the world’s most ancient Jewish communities, are a case in point.

Why? Because playing by the rules is just what happened recently when a visiting PBS journalist came calling on Iran’s Jews — with Teheran’s explicit permission, of course.

You’ll recall that Iran’s leaders constantly call for Israel’s physical destruction and that Teheran funds Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian Hamas. Both proxies are also sworn to destroy Israel.

This means that Iranian Jews are between the proverbial rock and a hard place. Many of them have relatives in Israel, and the Jewish homeland is where their biblical-era ancestors fled from some 2,700 years ago, when forced into exile.

In late November, one of PBS’s premiere news platforms, “PBS NewsHour,” broadcast a piece that, like other attempts to explain the Iranian Jewish community, came up frustratingly short.

Once again, those Iranian Jews interviewed on camera said what they always say, which is that life for them in Iran is, on balance, secure — though not always perfectly so — and that Israel is their enemy simply because it's their government's enemy.

What else could they say in a nation where just one politically suspect utterance by a Jewish community member, particularly if made to a foreign media outlet, could mean devastating consequences for them and their co-religionists?

(“Special correspondent” Reza Sayah did note some of the tightly controlled circumstances in which Iran’s Jewish minority survives as second-class citizens. But PBS could have added the comments of an outside expert or two to more fully explain the Iranian context. I can’t help wonder why that didn't happen.)

Here’s the lede-in to the NewsHour story, lifted from the segment’s transcript:

Jewish people have called Iran home for nearly 3,000 years. The Trump administration and U.S. ally Israel often depict the Iranian government as composed of anti-Semitic radical Islamists bent on destroying Israel. But within Iran, many of the estimated 15,000 Jews say they're safe and happy living in the Islamic Republic. Reza Sayah takes a rare inside look at life for Iran's Jewish minority.

“Safe and happy”? Perhaps in a Potemkin village sort of way.

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Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

Covering exotic faiths, in Uganda and Tibet, a special challenge for Western religion scribes

One of the toughest disciplines for journalists to follow — if not the toughest — is setting aside personal judgements about others’ opinions. It’s a struggle for all practitioners of the craft, but it's particularly difficult for religion specialists.

That’s because of the deep and often unconscious psychological ties between personal identity and beliefs about life’s ultimate questions.

It's even harder to handle when covering faith systems outside the mainstream majority religions, with which we’re generally more familiar and, therefore, more comfortable.

I was reminded of this by two recent Religion News Service stories. RNS published them the same day, but what I want to focus on is how they took opposite approaches to covering some exotic territory.

One piece was about a subset of Pentecostal Christian leaders in Uganda warning their followers not to rely upon traditional Western medicine rather than their faith to see them through ill-health. The second concerned the Tibetan Buddhist leader, the Dalai Lama, the fourteenth in his lineage, and speculated about his reincarnation, or even if he should — which is monumental for Tibetan Buddhists.

Both pieces, I’d say, likely strained the belief systems of the preponderance of Westerners, including religion journalists.

Before we jump into those two stories, let me offer some caveats.

When I talk about putting aside our personal judgements I’m not including niche religion publications written for particular faith groups. Nor am I talking about opinion journalism, which includes the posts here at GetReligion.

Rather, I’m talking about mainstream news reporting, the sort historically defined by professional standards that attempt to provide “objective” journalism.

Frankly, I don't believe objectivity was ever really attainable for subjective humans (meaning all of us). So I prefer the label “fair and fact-based.” And yes, I’m fully aware that highly opinionated journalism is the increasingly preferred format in today’s 24/7, atomized, web and cable TV-dominated news environment.

One more thing. In no way should anything I write here be misinterpreted as an unqualified endorsement of any of the beliefs noted.

Now back to the RNS stories. Here’s the top of the Uganda piece:

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Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.

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The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

The Saudi puzzle: Here are four religion threads woven into this sordid political drama

Saudi Arabia is, currently, for the most part a political story. Though for the sake of historical perspective, let’s not forget that, this certainly is not the first time a United States president has decided to put markets or narrow politics ahead of social justice concerns.

Ever hear of Pinochet’s Chile, Batista’s Cuba, the Shah’s Iran, or Egypt and Pakistan under any number of leaders, just to name a few?

Perhaps it's the ham-fisted manner in which our current self-styled Lord of the Manor, President Donald Trump, has handled the matter that has elevated it to its current degree? Or perhaps it’s because of social media and our rapacious 24-7 news cycle that presidents no longer can easily sidestep policies their political opponents wish to highlight?

Politics aside — if that’s even possible — there are at least four religion angles to the Saudi story that are very much worth considering, however. The first three, I confess, I’m giving short shrift because I want to reserve ample space here for a forth angle, the knottiest of the quartet I’m highlighting.

Here are the first three.

Historically, the most important angle is how the (must we still say, “apparent”?) Saudi murder and coverup of former Washington Post oped writer Jamal Khashoggi has become part of the historic rivalry between Turkey and Saudi Arabia for dominance over Sunni Islam.

Here’s a solid backgrounder from Foreign Policy that covers that history.

One wonders whether any number of other Muslim nations would have raised Khashoggi’s death to the level that Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan did if they lacked his Ottoman fantasies?

The Post, of course, would probably have reacted as it did no matter where Khashoggi was killed — as it should have. But would the newspaper have had the same level of information to go on if not for Erdogan’s desire — remember Turkey is no friend of a free press — to rub Saudi Arabia’s nose in the mud?

A second angle is the nail in the coffin that the Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman —  the petroleum-rich, absolute monarchy’s de facto ruler — has put in the Pollyanish notion that his ascendancy to power would result in a loosening of the kingdom’s myriad and ultra-conservative religious reins, particularly in their application to women.

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Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Here is the religion news question that haunted me over the long Thanksgiving weekend: Why is the unfolding story of threats to Asia Bibi of Pakistan a major story in England and Europe, but not here in the United States? (Click here for recent podcast linked to this topic.)

Let me be more blunt: Are journalists on this side of the Atlantic waiting for you know who — Donald Trump — to address this tense, deadly situation in a tweet?

OK, I will be more blunt: At what point will leaders of the pro-Trump evangelical niche show up at the White House and demand that this Christian woman — cleared of blasphemy charges, but now in hiding, trapped in house arrest — be granted asylum? What if the president sent his own private plane to Pakistan to retrieve her? Maybe this would be awkward with the violent drama on the US-Mexico border?

One more blunt thought: Is part of the problem that Bibi is Catholic, not evangelical? I keep watching the headlines for evidence that Pope Francis might intervene. Right now, the main news on that front consists of fake photos circulating online claiming to show a Bibi meeting with the pope. Let me stress: The reports are fake.

For those seeking an update, here is the top of a recent Daily Mail report. Do I need to note that this outlet is considered “conservative” news?

Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.

It is a desperate situation — and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.

Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.

Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming.

The Mail team sent reporters to Bibi’s home village and came back with plenty of harrowing details about her history and the current crisis.

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The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

The death of a U.S. missionary: Was John Allen Chau's effort mere imperialism?

A few days ago, when news was dribbling out about a hapless American Christian missionary speared to death on an Indian island, I figured the story would be just a blip in the daily news flow.

Since then, a geyser of coverage of enveloped this story; not only about the slain man himself, but on the justifications used for missionaries being there in the first place. For some journalists, this has turned into another opportunity to bash missionaries, especially evangelicals, with one-sided stories that feature major holes, in terms of content.

Being that the John Allen Chau was from the southern half of Washington state, the Seattle Times (my local paper) has been full of coverage from the Associated Press.

SEATTLE (AP) — John Allen Chau spent summers alone in a California cabin as a wilderness emergency responder, led backpacking expeditions in the Northwest’s Cascade Mountains, almost lost his leg to a rattlesnake bite, and coached soccer for poor children in Iraq and South Africa.

But kayaking to a remote Indian island, home to a tribe known for attacking outsiders with bows and arrows, proved an adventure too far for the avid outdoorsman and Christian missionary. Police said Wednesday that he had been killed, and authorities were working with anthropologists to try to recover his body from North Sentinel, in the Andaman Islands.

“Words cannot express the sadness we have experienced about this report,” his family said in a statement posted on his Instagram account. “He loved God, life, helping those in need, and had nothing but love for the Sentinelese people.”

Since his Nov. 16 death, everyone has gotten in on this story either to editorialize on what those stupid missionaries are doing in parts of the world that clearly don’t want them or to puzzle out what drove a healthy 26-year-old to face certain death.

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