Money

Sin and money: In the Deep South, why one state seems more willing to embrace gambling

Sin and money: In the Deep South, why one state seems more willing to embrace gambling

In my time with The Associated Press in Nashville, Tenn., I spent months covering the 2002 battle over a proposed state lottery.

Before Tennessee voters went to the polls that November, I wrote a story explaining why religious opponents had avoided portraying the referendum as a "moral issue."

From that story, which ran on the national political wire:

“To win, we could not make it a preacher issue,” said the Rev. Paul Durham, a Southern Baptist pastor and treasurer for the Gambling Free Tennessee Alliance. “We had to make it a truth issue.”

The campaign’s lack of Bible thumping reflects political and theological realities in the battle over lifting a constitutional ban on a lottery. Polls have consistently shown most Tennesseans – those in the pews and otherwise – see no inherent evil in the concept of a lottery.

“Since 47 states have gambling, I would have to think God’s not really against it,” said state Sen. Steve Cohen, a Democrat and the state’s chief lottery proponent.

As it turned out, the lottery proposal passed easily — winning support from 58 percent of the nearly 1.6 million Tennesseans who voted.

I was reminded of the Volunteer State's experience when I read a New York Times piece Sunday making the case that "Alabama's Longtime Hostility to Gambling Shows Signs of Fading." Among those pushing for a lottery vote: both major-party gubernatorial candidates nominated last week.

The Times' lede:

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Lakewood Church as family empire: Houston Chronicle business reporter gets it right

Lakewood Church as family empire: Houston Chronicle business reporter gets it right

Every so often, the Houston Chronicle covers some aspect of the Osteen empire at Lakewood Church, the nation’s largest Christian congregation. In the late 1980s when I worked at "the Chron,"  I followed the Rev. John Osteen, the patriarch who founded Lakewood in the 1960s and built it into a famous congregation with a TV ministry and an international outreach.

At the time, Lakewood was in northeast Houston and its billboards advertised the place as the “Oasis of Love.” I wrote a 1988 story about their move into a new building that John Osteen boasted only cost $5 million (while other megachurches were spending five times that on their capital projects) so that extra money could go to missions. Then in 2005, Lakewood moved across town to the 16,000-seat Compaq Center (former home of the NBA Rockets) on a major freeway smack in the middle of town.

Starting May 31, the Chronicle came out with “The Preacher’s Son,” a three-part series about its pastor, Joel Osteen, the son who took over when his dad died in 1999. The main writer was not a religion reporter but a business writer, as there was much emphasis on Lakewood Church as a $90 million/year business complete with financial statements and property records. The result was a wealth of information on the church I don’t think has ever been released.

The first part of the series kicks off with a segment from one of Osteen’s sermons, then:

This is how Osteen has become the nation's most ubiquitous pastor and one of its wealthiest. He has earned the allegiance of the hopeless, the doubtful and the downtrodden with a credo of beguiling simplicity: Don't dwell on the past. Think positive. Be a victor, not a victim.

A self-described "encourager," he rarely addresses or even acknowledges the fundamental mysteries of Christianity, let alone such contentious issues as same-sex marriage or abortion. Instead, he exhorts listeners to take charge of their destinies and confront whatever "enemies" they face -- debt collectors, clueless bosses, grim medical diagnoses, loneliness.

In an era of bitter cultural and political divisions, he has redefined what it means to be evangelical by dispensing with the bad news and focusing solely on the good. His vanilla creed has proven irresistible, especially to those down on their luck.

Then the focus shifts to the numbers:

Broadcasts of its thunderous, music-filled services reach an estimated 10 million U.S. viewers each week on television -- and more via websites and podcasts. Many of them go on to buy Osteen's books, devotionals, CDs, DVDs and other merchandise.

A 24-hour Sirius XM station, launched in 2014, expanded his domain to include people commuting to work or running errands.

He has taken Lakewood on the road with monthly Night of Hope events, lavishly produced spectacles of prayer and song that fill stadiums across the country at $15 a ticket. Attendees post branded photos from the events on Facebook and Twitter, where Osteen has amassed a combined 28 million followers.

His 10 books, self-help manuals filled with homespun wisdom about the power of positive thinking, have sold more than 8.5 million printed copies in the U.S. alone, according to NPD BookScan.

It's religion as big business, run by a close-knit family that excels at promoting Osteen as an earnest, folksy everyman. 

That does nail it, you must admit.

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'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

'The Sin of Silence' in The Washington Post: It's easy to hide sin in an independent-church maze

Trust me on this: If you read the Joshua Pease essay, "The sin of silence: The epidemic of denial about sexual abuse in the evangelical church," you will be angry and you'll have questions.

The Washington Post labels this as a "Perspective" piece -- think "analysis," not pure opinion -- but it includes lots of on-the-record sources and information, as well as personal observations by Pease. The writer is identified as "a freelance writer, was an evangelical pastor for 11 years." I would have added some kind of reference to his book, "The God Who Wasn't There: looking for a Savior in the middle of pain." 

Yes, once again we are in "theodicy" territory, a common topic here at GetReligion.

The overture for this piece -- detailing abuse Rachael Denhollander suffered when she was seven years old -- is unforgettable, especially for parents who grew up in church. I wish I would quote it all, but this passage will have to do.

The man’s behavior caught the attention of a fellow congregant, who informed Sandy Burdick, a licensed counselor who led the church’s sexual-abuse support group. Burdick says she warned Denhollander’s parents that the man was showing classic signs of grooming behavior. They were worried, but they also feared misreading the situation and falsely accusing an innocent student, according to Camille Moxon, Denhollander’s mom. So they turned to their closest friends, their Bible-study group, for support.

The overwhelming response was: You’re overreacting. One family even told them that their kids could no longer play together, because they didn’t want to be accused next, Moxon says. Hearing this, Denhollander’s parents decided that, unless the college student committed an aggressive, sexual act, there was nothing they could do.

No one knew that, months earlier, he already had.

A few lines later there is a quick, passing reference to what I think is one of the crucial facts in this complicated story. The church in which this abuse took place has, in the years since that moral train wreck, shut down.

It's gone. Did the leaders learn their lessons? Who cares? It's gone. It's hard to hold anyone accountable when churches simply vanish.


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Friday Five: Biblical bombshell (not), Joel Osteen deep dive, Onion-style real headlines and more

Friday Five: Biblical bombshell (not), Joel Osteen deep dive, Onion-style real headlines and more

I bring you an update today courtesy of The Religion Guy.

Those of you who are regular GetReligion readers know that The Guy is Richard N. Ostling, who was a longtime religion writer with The Associated Press and Time magazine and received the Religion News Association's lifetime achievement award in 2006. Here at GetReligion we call him the "patriarch."

Back in March, Ostling wrote about a manuscript fragment of the Gospel of Mark supposedly dating back to the 1st Century A.D. He put it this way:

A long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947. Or not.

Here is the update from my esteemed colleague:

In case anyone is pursuing this story idea, it now appears that  “not” is the operative word. Brill has issued the long-delayed volume 83 of its Oxyrhynchus Papyri series and turns out Oxford paleography expert Dirk Obbink dates this text far later. It's still an important early find, but not the earth-shattering claim that was made by several evangelical exegetes. The so-called Papyrus 5345 fragment covers six verses, Mark 1:7-9, 16-18.

Daniel Wallace, who first announced the forthcoming bombshell in a 2012 debate with Bart Ehrman, explains what happened and apologizes to Ehrman and everyone else in a post on his blog. Also notable is this new posting by Elijah Hixson at a technical website about textual criticism. Hixson’s May 30 overview for Christianity Today shows there’s still a story the news media might explore.

         Good lessons here for journalists as well as biblical scholars. 

Now, let's dive into the Friday Five:

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Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

Follow the money: Does old United Methodist left really want a smashing LGBTQ win in 2019?

It’s one of the most familiar mantras in American journalism: "Follow the money." This is, of course, a cynical way to look at life on the religion beat, since many idealistic believers have been known to take doctrinal stands that clash with their own self interests. 

However, things are different when you are covering the actions of big ecclesiastical fortresses -- like the United Methodist Church. This is especially true when reality begins to threaten the "way things are done around here" and the foundations of the fortress start moving.

Now, with the money mantra in mind, let's look at the "first the right said this," and then "the left said this" opening of a new Religion News Service feature about the denominational chess game that’s being played ahead of a special General Conference slated for Feb. 23-26, 2019, in St. Louis. This historic showdown is supposed to bring some form of peace after decades of doctrinal debates about marriage, ordination and sexuality. Here we go:

(RNS) -- United Methodist Church activists who sharply disagree about whether to ordain LGBT clergy or officiate same-sex marriages do agree on one point: A plan recommended by the Council of Bishops isn’t satisfying to either side.

Socially conservative evangelicals say the plan, which aims to avert schism in the 12 million-member denomination, goes too far by permitting individual pastors and regional bodies to make their own decisions on whether to perform same-sex weddings and ordain LGBT people as clergy. ...

Meanwhile progressives aren’t happy either. Reconciling Ministries Network and the United Methodist Queer Clergy Caucus, two groups committed to the full inclusion of LGBT people in the United Methodist Church, also expressed concerns that none of the three plans included in the bishops’ report would affirm ordination and marriage for all the denominations’ LGBT members.

In other words, there is no plan that clearly upholds 2,000 years of Christian doctrine on marriage and sex, but there is no plan that clearly overthrows small-o "orthodox" church tradition, either. Orthodoxy would be optional, and we all know what that means.

But, once again: Follow the money.

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New York Post probes Greek tragedy at ground zero, while asking few Orthodox questions

New York Post probes Greek tragedy at ground zero, while asking few Orthodox questions

To be perfectly honest, this is a story that tears my heart out.

I have been reporting and writing about the destruction of the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in lower Manhattan ever since Sept. 12, 2001. This was, of course, the tiny sanctuary crushed by the fall of the south tower of the World Trade Center.

I have also written columns about the long and complicated efforts by Orthodox officials to obtain a site near ground zero so that a new St. Nicholas could be built as a memorial and sanctuary. When I am in Manhattan, l live and teach nearby and pass the new construction site almost every day. My favorite pub is 50 paces away.

Now there is this, a recent headline from The New York Post: "How a church destroyed on 9/11 became mired in controversy." The overture states the basic facts:

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church was to be a “beacon of hope” at the World Trade Center site, glowing at night as a symbol to the faithful and those seeking solace on hallowed ground.

Thousands of visitors were to walk through the church doors on Liberty Street to worship, light a candle or just sit quietly in a nondenominational meditation room overlooking one of the 9/11 Memorial’s reflecting pools.

Now the church is a half-built eyesore, and when those doors will open is uncertain. The project has been stalled for five months and become a quagmire of accusations and millions of dollars in missing donations and cost overruns. What was to be the proud symbol of the Greek Orthodox Church in America, and the only house of worship tending to the masses at Ground Zero, is now mired in controversy. ...

GetReligion readers will not be surprised to know that the main thing missing from this long and detailed report is (wait for it) religion. And here is the big irony in this story: If the Post team had probed the religious elements of this story if would have been even more painful to read, especially for the Orthodox.

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Scientology gets a TV channel, but rates little more than a yawn in the news coverage

Scientology gets a TV channel, but rates little more than a yawn in the news coverage

The Church of Scientology started its own TV channel this week, but coverage of the event -– such as it was -– didn’t come from religion specialists. Instead, it was general assignment reporters who did the job.

That left readers with some pretty predictable questions about this story. For example: What about the "why?" factor in the traditional journalism "who," "what," "when," "where," "why" and "how" sequence?

I found the show on YouTube and watched it for an hour. Muzak played throughout and much of the content was focused on how you, the viewer can -- through Scientology, of course -- set personal goals, overcome adversity, sail through life, and more. There was a ton of testimonies from members (or really good actors) on how Scientology had improved their lot.

There were snippets from weekly church services, although not enough to get an idea of of what typically goes on. There were odd parts; like showcasing their bookstore? But after smiling personage after smiling personage informed me of the benefits of Scientology, my interest began to wane after a half hour.

CNN Money said

The Church of Scientology is headed to television.
The organization is set to premiere Scientology TV on Monday, a new network that will air on DirecTV and available via streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV and Fire TV.
"The only thing more interesting than what you've heard is what you haven't," read a promo announcing the channel, shared on Scientology social media accounts.

The Associated Press did a more in-depth summation that mirrors what I saw:

The first hour offered a slickly produced taste of the series to follow from an in-house studio, including “Meet a Scientologist,” ‘’Destination Scientology” and the three-part “L. Ron Hubbard: In His Own Voice.” The channel is available on DIRECTV, AppleTV, Roku, fireTV, Chromecast, iTunes and Google Play.
(Scientology leader David) Miscavige didn’t directly address critics, but Scientology doesn’t lack for them. Several high-profile projects have investigated the church’s alleged abuses of former members, including actress Leah Remini’s A&E docuseries “Scientology and the Aftermath” and Alex Gibney’s Emmy-winning documentary, “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief.”
Instead, the channel’s debut offered interviews with church members who touted Scientology’s rewards, showed off its impressive facilities in cities including Melbourne, London, Tokyo and throughout the United States and its work with other churches and community groups.

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Dear Washington Post international desk: Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?

Dear Washington Post international desk: Does Russia's 'Putin Generation' have a soul?

I have spent the last several days on the West Coast, hanging out with a circle of journalists from around the world -- think Asia, Europe, Latin America, Africa, etc.

As you would expect, when journalists get together it's rather common for us to talk about the news and, in particular, stories in major media that have captured our attention. #DUH

One of the stories that came up for discussion this week was a Washington Post feature that ran with this headline: "The Putin Generation -- Young Russians are Vladimir Putin’s biggest fans." The bottom line: That headline clashed with the impressions several of these journalists have had in the recent past while working in Russia or talking with Russia experts.

In particular (here comes the GetReligion "ghost"), several journalists wanted to know more about the role that moral, cultural and religious issues -- think LGBTQ questions, to name one example -- played in this equation.

To be blunt: The story contains no information on moral and religious issues at all. However, there is evidence that it should have.

Hold that thought, while we explore the overture:

KURGAN, Russia -- A young woman, riding a city bus to her journalism class, enjoys using the time to scroll through an independent news site that can be scathing in its reports on Russia’s authoritarian president -- leaving her to wrestle with a paradox, the paradox of her generation.
“What the Russian soul demands,” says Yekaterina Mamay, “is that there be one strong politician in the country who resembles a czar.”
In Russia’s upcoming presidential election, the 20-year-old student, who knows that journalism in her country is not free, will nonetheless vote to reelect Vladimir Putin.
Here, where the forest of the taiga meets the grassy steppe, the “Putin Generation” is no different from anywhere else across Russia’s vastness: coming of age without a rebellious streak. Today’s Russian young adults have no memory of life before Putin, who first took power as their president 18 years ago. Some have taken to the streets in protest, but social scientists say many more have grown to accept him. Polls show that Putin enjoys greater support among youth than among the public at large.

OK, I'll ask: What kinds of issues have driven young Russians into the street in the past? What Putin-era issues have they protested?

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So, you thought the bizarre crisis at Newsweek was complicated enough already?

So, you thought the bizarre crisis at Newsweek was complicated enough already?

If you are a long-time reader of weekly news magazines (many old people like me will raise their hands), then it is has been bizarre trying to follow the bizarre reports coming out of the Newsweek newsroom.

We are, of course, talking about news reports ABOUT Newsweek, not reports BY Newsweek about others. Then again, there have also been headlines about Newsweek reports about events at Newsweek, and the fallout from all of the above. This New York Post headline (of course) captures the mood: " 'Bats–t crazy’ Newsweek staff meeting quickly goes off the rails."

Confused? To top it all off -- from a GetReligion perspective -- there are several very complicated religion angles (think arguments about the end of the world and a possible messiah) buried in the details here. Reporters need to be careful.

First, what the heckfire is going on? Let's walk into a CNN Money report for a few basics:

Employees at Newsweek have been told that editor-in-chief Bob Roe and executive editor Ken Li have been fired, sources with knowledge of the situation told CNN.
A reporter, Celeste Katz, who had written articles about financial issues at the magazine as well as an investigation by the Manhattan District Attorney's office into its parent company, Newsweek Media Group, was also let go, the sources said.
Katz declined to comment to CNN but tweeted on Monday afternoon, "My warmest thanks to the brave Newsweek editors and colleagues who supported and shared in my work -- especially our recent, difficult stories about the magazine itself -- before my dismissal today. I'll sleep well tonight... and I'm looking for a job!"

OK, it helps to know that, earlier, co-owner and Newsweek Media Group chair Etienne Uzac resigned, along with his wife, company finance director Marion Kim. Oh, and in January the Manhattan District Attorney's office raided Newsweek offices -- exiting with several computer servers. Then there was the BuzzFeed report about pre-Newsweek allegations about sexual abuse by chief content manager Dayan Candappa.

I think that's enough context. So now, the religion angles.

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