People

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

Follow the money? By all means. But Bransfield scandal may involve some 'Catholic' issues

It’s time for another trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt. That’s where news features go that I know are important, but I cannot — quickly — spot the issue that is nagging me.

Thus, the story gets filed away, while I keep thinking about it.

In this case, we are talking about a Washington Post story that is an important follow-up on the newspaper’s investigation into charges of corruption against Catholic Bishop Michael J. Bransfield of West Virginia — an important disciple of the fallen cardinal Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick. Click here for the first GetReligion post on this topic, by Bobby Ross, Jr.

The headline on this new expose states: “Warnings about West Virginia bishop went unheeded as he doled out cash gifts to Catholic leaders.” Yes, this story is about money, money, money and then more money.

Oh, there is some signs of sexual harassment of seminarians in there, but that doesn’t seem to interest the Post team. And there are hints that some of the conflicts surrounding Bransfield may have had something to do with Catholicism. Maybe. Hold that thought because we will come back to it. Here is the overture:

Senior Catholic leaders in the United States and the Vatican began receiving warnings about West Virginia Bishop Michael J. Bransfield as far back as 2012. In letters and emails, parishioners claimed that Bransfield was abusing his power and misspending church money on luxuries such as a personal chef, a chauffeur, first-class travel abroad and more than $1 million in renovations to his residence.

“I beg of you to please look into this situation,” Linda Abrahamian, a parishioner from Martinsburg, W.Va., wrote in 2013 to the pope’s ambassador to the United States.

But Bransfield’s conduct went unchecked for five more years. He resigned in September 2018 after one of his closest aides came forward with an incendiary inside account of years of sexual and financial misconduct, including the claim that Bransfield sought to “purchase influence” by giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash gifts to senior Catholic leaders.

“It is my own opinion that His Excellency makes use of monetary gifts, such as those noted above, to higher ranking ecclesiastics and gifts to subordinates to purchase influence from the former and compliance or loyalty from the latter,” Monsignor Kevin Quirk wrote to William Lori, the archbishop of Baltimore, in a letter obtained by The Washington Post.

Then there is the big thesis statement:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Podcast talking: Would Democrats take Marianne Williamson seriously if her name was ....

Donald Trump is not going to be beaten just by insider politics talk. He’s not going to be beaten just by somebody who has plans. He’s going to be beaten by somebody who has an idea what the man has done. This man has reached into the psyche of the American people and he has harnessed fear for political purposes.

“So, Mr. President — if you’re listening — I want you to hear me please: You have harnessed fear for political purposes and only love can cast that out. So I, sir, I have a feeling you know what you’re doing. I’m going to harness love for political purposes. I will meet you on that field, and sir, love will win.”

— Marianne Williamson’s final statement in first debate for Democrats seeking White House in 2020.

Anyone want to guess what this particular candidate might use as the anthem that plays at the beginning and end of her campaign rallies?

I’m thinking that it might be something that honors the 1992 bestseller — “A Return to Love” — that made her a national sensation back in what people called the New Age era. Something like this: Cue the music.

I focused quite a bit on that book’s old New Age theology in my recent post (“Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new”) about a fascinating New York Times feature about Williamson and her decision to seek the White House. I thought it was appropriate that the Times gave so much attention to the religious themes and concepts in her work, instead of going all politics, all the time.

But, truth be told, the key question discussed in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — focused on mass media, celebrity, religion and, yes, politics, all at the same time.

Look again at that debate quote at the top of this post and give an honest answer to this question: Would that quotation be receiving more attention if the candidate who spoke it was someone named Oprah? How about this person’s candidacy for the Democratic Party nomination?

Williamson is being treated as a bit of a novelty, frankly, even though millions of Americans — on the elite coasts, but also in the heartland, because of her role as a spiritual guide for Oprah Winfrey.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

Friday Five: Billy Graham rule, Marianne Williamson, nun's curveball, MZ's Kavanaugh book

A famous steakhouse off Interstate 40 in Amarillo, Texas, offers a free, 72-ounce steak.

The only catch: You must eat it all in one setting.

On a reporting trip this week, I stopped there for lunch. Spoiler alert: I didn’t order the 4.5-pound hunk of beef. I chose something slightly smaller.

While I savor the delicious memories, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This may not be the most important story of the week. In fact, veteran religion journalist G. Jeffrey MacDonald questioned on Twitter whether it’s news at all.

But I’m fascinated by the coverage of a little-known Mississippi gubernatorial candidate who invoked the “Billy Graham rule” in declining to allow a female journalist to shadow him for a day. I wrote about all the national media attention state Rep. Robert Foster has received — and the lack of details on Foster’s actual religious beliefs — in a post Thursday.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Modesto Bee punts when it comes to basic reporting on pastor-turned-politician

Modesto Bee punts when it comes to basic reporting on pastor-turned-politician

Normally I’m happy when smaller newspapers cover religion news. And the 33, 522-circ. Modesto Bee does qualify as a small newspaper.

The second newspaper I worked for was that size. The first one was even smaller, so I know what it’s like to be in the smaller markets. But when a big religion story is staring you in the face, it would help to provide more than the minimum of coverage.

Fox example, when a local megachurch pastor decides to run for public office, that calls for decent coverage. What did run, in this case, was pretty lackadaisical.

The senior pastor of Big Valley Grace Community Church — which is one of Modesto’s biggest churches — confirmed Monday that he is running for mayor in the November 2020 election.

“I love this town. I love the people of this town,” Rick Countryman said in a phone interview. “This is literally the right time to get involved. (If elected), I will use my energy, my passion and leadership to make Modesto a better place.”

Countryman, 58, declined to discuss his top issues or what he hopes to accomplish if elected. He said there will be plenty of time to talk about those things during the campaign. But he did say he gets tired of how Modesto ends up on the “bottom of lists of crummy towns” and wants to change that.

So here is the crucial question: What happens to the church, if he is elected mayor? How does one do both jobs?

Countryman said he has thought about running for mayor for about the past couple of elections but the time was not right. He said he now is at a stage in his life and Big Valley is in “healthy place” where running makes sense.

He said if elected, he would continue with Big Valley but his role may change as he takes on the demands of being mayor. Countryman said about 3,000 people attend Big Valley, which he said places it among the five largest churches in Modesto for attendance.

So this guy essentially runs a corporation servicing 3,000 people and he has the free time to want to run for mayor?

Something is very funny here.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Why did Ross Perot turn on George H.W. Bush, another rich Texan? Look for a religion ghost

Here’s the parting shot offered by Ross Perot, in an interview a few years ago with The Dallas Morning News: "Texas born. Texas bred. When I die, I'll be Texas dead. Ha!"

No doubt about it, Perot was a Texan. However, the prodigal Texan in me (my chosen label) can still remember some of the holes in the mainstream press coverage of Perot’s gadfly political career — if that was, in fact, the real goal of his crucial first White House campaign. So many journalists simply settled for saying that Perot was a Texan, when they needed to ask what KIND of Texan he was.

You see, Perot wasn’t your ordinary Texan. He wasn’t even your ordinary rich Texan in Dallas.

Perot rose to become a Highland Park Texan. He wasn’t just rich, he was a certain kind of rich within the structures of Texas life. If you want a glimpse inside that world, check out this 1976 classic from Texas Monthly: “The Highland Park Woman.”

To cut to the chase, this kind of conservative Texan — much like the liberal tribe located in Austin — is embarrassed by all those other Texans. Most of all, they are opposed to all of those, well, religious nuts out there in ordinary Texas.

So this leads me to the big question that I kept asking as I read some of the mainstream news obituaries for Perot: Why did he do it? Why did Perot turn on George H.W. Bush — from the Houston version of the Highland Park tribe — and try to take him down? What was the elder Bush’s fatal sin?

Well, let’s look back to a 1992 feature in the New York Times to find some of the information that was omitted from the Perot obits, as well as most of the coverage of his public life. Read this carefully:

Mr. Perot espoused a kind of fiscal conservatism and toward the end of his campaign a strong law-and-order theme. But he also drew cheers when he staunchly defended a woman's right to choose an abortion and when he bashed the religious right. Indeed, in the voter survey, only 34 percent of Mr. Perot's voters said they attended religious services at least once a week, compared with 42 percent in the survey sample as a whole.

Mr. Perot's army seems to include a strong libertarian streak: people seeking a measure of freedom from what they perceive as the heavy hand of institutions, religious as well as governmental. If the fundamentalist right holds sway in the coming battle for the soul of the Republican Party, Perot followers could go elsewhere.

What did Bush do wrong? Why, there may have been other sins (like Gulf War 1.0), but it was crucial that George H.W. Bush betrayed his class by abandoning his support for abortion rights, while taking other steps to court the world of religious and cultural conservatism.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Evil, sin, reality and life as a 'Son of God': What Marianne Williamson is saying isn't new

Early in the 1990s, I made the leap from full-time reporting in a mainstream newsroom — the Rocky Mountain News (RIP) — to teaching at Denver Seminary.

My goal was to pull “signals” from mainstream media into the world of people preparing for various ministries (key summary document here), helping them to face the ideas, symbols and stories that were shaping ordinary Americans, in pews and outside traditional religious groups. I wanted to pay attention to valid questions, even if traditional believers couldn’t embrace the media world’s answers.

In my main class, I needed a book that could open a door into what I called “Oprah America.” Thus, in 1992, I required my students to read “A Return To Love: Reflections on the Principles of A Course in Miracles,” by Marianne Williamson. Some of these evangelical students were not amused.

This, of course, leads us to that massive New York Times feature that ran the other day:

The Curious Mystical Text Behind Marianne Williamson’s Presidential Bid

The New Age author was drawn to an esoteric bible in the 1970s. It made her a self-help megastar. And now it has gone mainstream.

To my shock, the world’s newspaper of record dedicated large chunks of newsprint to the religious content — the doctrine, even — at the heart of Williamson’s life, ministry and her politics. I would say this story gets the equation about 75 percent right, but the Times team needed to back up a bit further in order to understand why so many Americans will — if told the roots of her thought — find her beliefs disturbing.

Hold that thought. Here’s the key question: How would the Times, and other elite media, have handled a feature about the beliefs of a Oneness Pentecostal or a faith-healing preacher who sought the presidency as a Republican? With this light a touch?

Now, here is a crucial chunk of that Times feature, which comes after a brief discussion of her remarks in the recent debates featuring a flock of Democratic candidates:

She was … drawing directly from a homegrown American holy book called “A Course in Miracles,” a curious New York scripture that arose during the heady metaphysical counterculture of the 1960s.

This is not some homey book of feel-good bromides. Rather, it is taken by its readers as a genuine gospel, produced by a Manhattan doctor who believed she was channeling new revelations from Jesus Christ himself.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Was Holy Communion celebrated during the first moon landing 50 years ago?

Was Holy Communion celebrated during the first moon landing 50 years ago?

DAVID’S QUESTION:

Do you know if it’s true Christian Communion was celebrated during the first moon landing?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Yes, though this was top-secret at the time.

Something about such momentous events makes mere mortals reach for transcendent themes. For example, media coverage of last month’s 75th anniversary of the D-Day landing featured President Franklin Roosevelt’s famous radio address leading the nation and world in a prayer that God would bless the invading Allied soldiers in the “struggle to preserve our republic, our religion and our civilization.”

Astronaut “Buzz” Aldrin performed the Christian sacrament on the moon in 1969, and revealed this in a 1970 article for the inspirational magazine Guideposts that was picked up by other media (full text here). The Communion is mentioned in the official history posted online by NASA.

At the time of the moon adventure, Aldrin was a lay elder of the Webster (Texas) Presbyterian Church and discussed ways to mark such an historic event with his pastor, Dean Woodruff. Aldrin raised the idea of Communion and Woodruff checked with Presbyterian headquarters, which said under those unusual circumstances it was proper for a solitary layman to serve himself elements that had been consecrated previously. (While Catholicism allows priests to celebrate Mass by themselves, Protestants only perform sacraments or ordinances in group worship.)

Two Sundays before liftoff, Aldrin received Communion in a private worship service. Woodruff gave him a second bit of the bread and a tiny silver chalice containing some of the wine, which he included with the personal items the astronauts were allowed to take into space.

After the Eagle landed on the moon, Aldrin asked mission control for brief radio silence. As Commander Neil Armstrong looked on, Aldrin read New Testament words of Jesus he had scrawled on a bit of paper:

Please respect our Commenting Policy