Kellerism

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

If you have heard of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, then you have probably heard of three things — a land called Narnia, “Mere Christianity” and a demon named Screwtape.

The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”

Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.

Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.

Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?

With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.

Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.

Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.

Please read the Times piece for yourself.

Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.

But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:

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Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

So, did you ever think that American evangelicals would — in terms of their public, mass-media “face” — have an option worse than the Rev. Pat Robertson?

I know, I know. That’s a high bar to clear, or a low one — depending on your point of view.

It seems that lots of journalists — no, not ALL of them — get an idea stuck in their heads every decade or so and they start acting like some vast, complex group of Americans can be accurately represented by one person (Robertson, for example) or even one statistic (81 percent of white evangelicals voted for You Know Who).

Here’s the irony: It’s kind of like what Donald Trump has done with America’s journalists, taking biases and inaccuracies that can be found in a few cases and turning them into a simplistic vision of the whole. Thus, Trump often stomps on the First Amendment-protected role that journalism is supposed to play in American public discourse.

Oh, I do realize that Robertson is still out there, cranking out soundbites (like this).

But that’s really not the topic we covered during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). The goal was to discuss WHY some journalists seem so anxious to play this game. With that in mind, let’s flash back to a journalism think piece that I wrote in 2005 for the Poynter Institute. The headline: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.” Here’s the overture:

Let's pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005.

After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.

After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, "We'll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because ..."

Pause for a minute. When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn't think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson's face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian.

Wow. The more things change, the more that they stay the same.

So, GetReligion readers, how do you feel when a news organization hits you with yet another reference to the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election?

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Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

For millions of Roman Catholics, the world began changing in the 1980s — with waves of headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases that eventually led to reporter Jason Berry’s cathartic 1992 book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.”

The National Catholic Reporter wrote article after article about the scandals. A crucial moment came in 1985, when The New York Times published a brutal article about the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who admitted that he abused dozens of children in parishes in rural, southwest Louisiana. HBO eventually made a movie — “Judgement” — about the Gauthe case.

Mainstream news reporters, including me, covered stories linked to the emerging scandal all through the 1980s, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss how to solve this hellish puzzle.

As a series of documentaries by Minnesota Public Radio stated, “It all began in Lafayette.”

I offered this brief flash back as context for an important, but stunningly faith-free, Washington Post “social issues” feature that ran under this headline: “What it’s like to be a young Catholic in a new era of clergy sex abuse scandals.” Here is the features crucial summary material:

In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.

This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.

At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.

Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute.

For starters, the Post does need to run a correction stating that the first national exposure of the clergy sexual abuse scandal did not come in 2002 in the Spotlight work published by The Boston Globe. The Globe work was stunning, and crucial, but it is simply inaccurate to ignore the nearly two decades of work that came before that.

However, the heart of this article consists of interviews with young Catholic women in Washington, D.C., along with experts who describe how their views illustrate the faith impact of the ongoing scandals. There are, apparently, no young Catholic men inside the Beltway.

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Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Thirty years ago, I asked a gay theologian in Denver a blunt question, while we were thinking out loud about the distant possibility that gay marriage would become a reality.

The question: Did he know anyone in the gay theological world — this man was well connected — who thought that gay women and men should remain virgins until taking vows and forming a monogamous, lifelong relationship with a partner?

After laughing out loud, he said, “No.” The debates, he said, would be about the meaning of the word “monogamous”? Few gay men, in particular, would accept what he called the “twin rocking chairs into the future” approach to absolute sexual fidelity.

About 15 years ago, I asked another gay activist if LGBTQ people lobbying for change in Christian higher education had considered attacking a very specific fault line: If Christian college leaders asked students to promise not to have sex outside of marriage, what would be the doctrinal grounds for banning gay dating?

He said: That’s a very interesting point. That’s going to be an issue someday.

Put those two questions together and you get the tensions on the campus of Azusa Pacific University, where administrators briefly approved a policy stating that gay romance — short of intercourse — was as welcome on the campus as straight. The trustees quickly nixed that revolutionary change.

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I talked about the APU furor, focusing on a particularly lousy, one-sided news report on the subject that ran in The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper once known for its quality religion-news work.

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Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

After 15 years of work here at GetReligion, it’s easy to describe the question that I hear more than any other when I get into discussions with readers of the blog.

The question: Do you ever get frustrated having to write posts about the same issues in mainstream news, over and over, criticizing the same errors — noting the same holes, the same biases, the same “religion ghosts”?

The answer: Yes, it’s frustrating. However, when we see problems over and over, that means we have to write about them. The repetition shows that the problem is real and is not going away.

That brings me to a new Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing LGBTQ debates at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college in greater LA. Our own Julia Duin wrote about some of the early coverage in post the other day. Please check that out.

The new Times piece is the same song, all over again. Frankly, this is one of the most slanted stories I have seen in a mainstream publication in a long time. So here we go — again.

The liberal evangelical side of this equation is covered in depth, as it should be. But if you are looking for student voices, faculty voices, trustee voices on the traditional side of this doctrinal debate, you need to look somewhere else. Let’s walk through the overture of the piece.

On a recent fall day, a group of protesters gathered in a university courtyard, many holding rainbow flags. About 100 students and faculty members were fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus.

With a crowd this size, it might have been possible to get a specific figure. However, let me note that APU has about 5,600 students.

This does not mean that a small crowd of this kind is not important. It takes guts to protest your own school when it is a private school that, when you enrolled, you were told upfront the doctrinal standards that would frame campus life. We are talking about a voluntary association, a private school that no one has to attend. People choose to study there, work there, teach there.

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What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

What happens when modern Mennonites attempt to find peace on LGBTQ issues?

You know that times are tough when even the Mennonites are fighting.

As is almost always the case, reporters who dig deep will find that they are dealing with a conflict that is rooted in theology, not politics (as defined in the actual James Davison Hunter “Culture Wars” book).

Yes, as is almost always the case, we are talking about another doctrinal dispute about the Sexual Revolution — LGBTQ issues to be specific. That brings us to an important Religion News Service update on the Mennonite wars.

Pay close attention to this story’s reference to the “consensus” decision-making traditions in this flock and its attempts to live in peace, despite clashes over doctrines rooted in centuries of Christian tradition. After all, we are talking about some of the freest of all “free church” believers. We will come back to that. Here is the overture:

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (RNS) — The 80 or so people who gather on Sunday at the Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, like many other members of the Mennonite Church USA, are accustomed to singing hymns a cappella in four-part harmony and making decisions by consensus.

It was by consensus more than two years ago that the congregation decided, after a year of study, to welcome LGBTQ people into the full life of the church — a decision that led its pastor perform a same-sex wedding between two women. That wedding tested core Mennonite tenets about sexuality and hastened a growing realignment in this denomination that traces its roots to the 16th-century Anabaptists.

The response from Chapel Hill’s regional body was swift: The Virginia Mennonite Conference immediately suspended pastor Isaac Villegas’ ordination credentials and put off any review or resolution.

In response, the congregation transferred its membership this summer to a conference of Midwestern churches in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. The Central District, with its headquarters in Goshen, Ind., not only admitted the North Carolina congregation into full membership; last month it also restored Villegas’ ordination credentials.

Sound familiar?

If you have followed the Sexual Revolution wars in oldline liberal Protestantism, you will recognize what is happening here. It’s called the “local option” approach to doctrine.

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That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

That old media-bias question again: What will NPR call someone who performs abortions?

As your GetReligionistas have explained many times, abortion is an issue that isn’t automatically religion-beat territory. However, most public debates about abortion (and euthanasia) end up involving religious groups and the arguments almost always involve religious language.

Yes, there is a group called Atheists Against Abortion and there are other groups on the religious and cultural left, such as the Pro-Life Alliance of Gays and Lesbians. I was converted to the pro-life position as a young adult through articles at Sojourners, including a famous essay by the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

But in the mainstream press, liberal pro-lifers hardly exist, if they exist at all. You would never know that somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of Democrats (depending on how you word the question) hold positions on abortion that most journalists would call “anti-choice.”

Thus, questions about abortion have long been at the heart of surveys linked to religion and media bias, with journalists, especially in elite urban zip codes, consistently backing America’s current regime of abortion laws to a much stronger degree than the public as a whole. It’s been that way since I started studying the issue in the early 1980s.

If you were looking for a recent Armageddon moment on this topic (other than the current U.S. Supreme Court fiasco), it would have to be the media coverage, or non-coverage, of the criminal activity of Dr. Kermit Gosnell of Philadelphia.

Here at GetReligion, the blogging and chutzpah of M.Z. Hemingway played a key role in forcing debates about that topic out into the open.

In the past week or so, several GetReligion readers have sent me the URL of a commentary at The Daily Beast that ran with this headline: “Leaked NPR Emails: Don’t Call Kermit Gosnell an ‘Abortion Doctor’.”

This piece focuses on one of the key issues raised during the Gosnell trial — what professional title should reporters describe to this member of the abortion industry?

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U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

I met Marsha Blackburn about 16 years ago when I was in Nashville on business around 2002, when she was running for a U.S. House seat after six years in the Tennessee Senate.

She won that race and has been on the rise ever since. Now she’s the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat and, Tennessee being the red state that it is, her chances of getting it are good except that she’s running against a very likable former governor.

All sorts of folks are watching this race. Some of the coverage frames this conservative candidate in very predictable ways.

The New York Times also did a piece on her recently but the focus was an odd one. The article was more on what she was not saying than on what she was.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Inside the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce one morning last month, a few dozen voters sipped coffee and listened for 45 minutes to Representative Marsha Blackburn tick off all the reasons that this traditionally Republican stronghold in northeastern Tennessee should support her in one of the most high-stakes Senate races this year.

She praised President Trump. She warned of an invasion of liberal policies and a Democratic takeover of committees if Republicans lose the Senate. She stressed securing the border, fighting MS-13 and lowering taxes. She highlighted her work as a Republican House member to “get government off your back.”

But one issue was entirely absent — the one that had made Ms. Blackburn famous in Washington, and infamous in Democratic circles: abortion.

We learn that she’s more into state issues these days; no great surprise in that she’s running statewide. Then we see why the Times is interested in her.

It’s a noticeable shift for a politician who three years ago took an incendiary turn in the nation’s culture wars. Amid a divisive battle over the funding of Planned Parenthood, Ms. Blackburn led a congressional committee investigating allegations that the group had tried to illegally profit from the sale of fetal tissue, which the organization denied. Ms. Blackburn fanned the flames by making the audacious charge that the group was selling “baby body parts on demand.”

It was a particularly ugly chapter in a bitter national debate…The episode gained national attention and cemented Ms. Blackburn’s reputation as a hard-right firebrand.

Let’s see: “Incendiary,” “divisive,” “ugly chapter,” “fanned the flames,” “audacious,” “hard-right firebrand.” I see where this is going.

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Vigano vs. mainstream press? Trying to find bright line between 'news' and 'commentary'

Vigano vs. mainstream press? Trying to find bright line between 'news' and 'commentary'

It's an old question, one that your GetReligionistas have had to ask many times over the past 15 years.

Read the following material and ask this question: Is this hard-news writing or editorial commentary? The context -- #DUH -- is that blunt letter written by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. He is the former Vatican ambassador to the United States from 2011-2016 who has accused Pope Francis of taking part in earlier efforts to protect and rehabilitate the fallen Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. 

The headline proclaims: "The Sex-Abuse Scandal Has Come for Pope Francis."

... (T)he pope’s defenders have characterized the letter as a smear against Francis, in part because of Viganò’s past clashes with the pope. The letter reflects the simmering discontent of conservative clergy in Rome, who dislike Francis’s inclination towards reform.

This piece was published by The Atlantic and, thus, it should be read as news analysis. Nevertheless, it helps to pause and consider the meaning of the word "reform," as opposed to "change." If you turn to a typical online dictionary you will find something like this:

reform ... noun

1. the improvement or amendment of what is wrong, corrupt, unsatisfactory, etc.

Thus, Francis is -- on issues such as divorce and many matters of moral theology -- viewed as someone who is working to right what is wrong, to attack those who are corrupt. The use of this term presupposes that Francis is the hero, doctrinally speaking, and his opponents are the corrupt opponents of what is right, good and holy. You get the picture.

Now, what about this language from the Washington Post? News or analysis?

DUBLIN -- Pope Francis has long faced criticism from traditionalists -- a group that includes academics as well as cardinals -- who say the church is too willingly following the whims of the anything-goes modern age. 

Much of the dissent has remained within the Vatican walls, as Francis’s opponents worked to stonewall reforms. 

Is this news or analysis, in the context of a daily newspaper?

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