Social Issues

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

Think about this strange debate in Alabama: Why does God need to see public records?

It’s one of the mantras I recite every now and then when describing journalism trends in this troubled age: Opinion is cheap, while information is expensive.

Week after week, readers send us the URLs to opinion pieces and op-ed essays about subjects that, in a previous age, might have received serious news coverage that explored the views of people on both sides of these arguments and standoffs.

This does not mean that these pieces are not important or that they don’t contain valid information about important news stories.

That’s certainly the case with this “opinion column” that was published recently by the Alabama Media Group — AL.com — with this headline: “Why does God need public records? In Alabama, that’s a real question.” The author is political columnist Kyle Whitmire.

The overture is somewhat confusing, but that’s sort of the point. What we have here is a case that involves press freedom, religious freedom, the death penalty and who knows what all. It’s a bit of a mystery.

Why in the name of God would anyone need a public record?

After all, doesn’t the Almighty already know what those documents show?

Those aren’t rhetorical questions. For Tabitha Isner, they were real, asked of her by a lawyer for the Alabama prison system. And she had to answer under oath.

Swear to God.

Or, if you care about transparency and accountability in government, just swear.

Like the Holy Bible, maybe we should start in the beginning.

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Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

Childless sex in the city? No doubt about it: America's supercities will impact religion news

A quarter of a century ago, I started teaching journalism in big American supercities — first in Washington, D.C., and now in New York City.

From the beginning, I heard students (most from Christian liberal arts colleges) asking poignant, basic questions about the impact of journalism on their future lives, in terms of job stress, economics and, yes, marriage and family life. These questions were often asked in private. Needless to say, these questions have continued, and intensified, with the ongoing advertising crisis that is eating many newsrooms.

I continue to urge my students to talk to real New Yorkers (or Beltway folks) who are living the realities — rather than accepting stereotypes. It’s crucial to talk to married folks with children and discuss the communities and networks that help them thrive or survive. The challenges are real, but the stereotypes are — in my experience — flawed and shallow.

These subjects hovered in the background as we recorded this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). This podcast digs into the implications of my earlier GetReligion post — “Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?” — about an Axios story on the economic and political clout of American super-cities.

If you want a deep dive into the marriage and family issue, check out the stunning essay at The Atlantic by staff writer Derek Thompson that just ran with this dramatic double-decker headline:

The Future of the City Is Childless

America’s urban rebirth is missing something key — actual births.

The opening anecdote will cause a shudder (perhaps of recognition) among many New Yorkers that I know:

A few years ago, I lived in a walkup apartment in the East Village of New York. Every so often descending the stairway, I would catch a glimpse of a particular family with young children in its Sisyphean attempts to reach the fourth floor.

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News reports say poll paints bleak picture of clergy's role in American society — but does it really?

News reports say poll paints bleak picture of clergy's role in American society — but does it really?

Is the glass three-quarters empty or one-quarter full?

That’s the question one prominent Godbeat pro is asking after an Associated Press story painted a somewhat negative portrait of clergy members’ role in U.S. society.

It probably should be noted that the award-winning journalist, G. Jeffrey MacDonald, also is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

According to the AP headline, a new poll shows that Americans “rarely seek guidance from clergy.” MacDonald takes issue with the global wire service’s concept of “rarely.” More on that in a moment.

First, the lede from AP:

DETROIT (AP) — Timothy Buchanan says he never consults clergy about important decisions, but it’s not for lack of faith: He regularly attends a nondenominational Christian church near his home.

Buchanan, 41, is not alone. A large majority of Americans make important decisions without calling on religious leaders for advice, according to a new survey released Monday by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research . The poll finds three-quarters of American adults rarely or never consult a clergy member or religious leader, while only about a quarter do so at least some of the time.

“The church we go to is quite large, and we’re relatively new there,” said Buchanan, who lives with his wife in Bolivia, North Carolina. “We really haven’t established a relationship with a minister there. Going to larger churches, it’s nearly impossible now to get a relationship with a clergyman or woman.”

The lack of personal connection with ministers even includes people who identify with a specific religious faith, though those who are most engaged with their faith are more likely to have relationships with clergy.

The poll finds about a third of Americans saying they attend church or other religious services at least twice a month; roughly a quarter never go. Among religious adults who attend services at least twice a month, about half say they sometimes or often consult with a religious leader. That compares with 16% of religious adults who attend services less often.

(By the way, Religion News Service wrote about the same survey this week, presenting the findings in an equally negative light. “New poll shows growing view that clergy are irrelevant,” says the headline.)

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Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

Think like a reporter: What kind of American cities are booming? Any impact on religion news?

I have a question for GetReligion readers, especially those who have experience in journalism or online publishing.

Here it is: Are readers “trolls” if they constantly write comments (and sends emails) that have little or nothing to do the journalism issues covered in our posts, but also provide — on a semi-regular basis — totally valid URLs for stories that deserve the attention of your GetReligionistas?

One of our readers, for example, is offended by references to “elite” newsrooms or “elite” U.S. zip codes, especially those along the East and West coasts. All of those studies showing that places like New York City, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles and the Silicon Valley have more clout than cities and towns in flyover country? Who has more power to shape the news, editors at The New York Times or The Oklahoman?

This brings me to a fascinating Axios piece that ran the other day with this headline: “The age of winner-take-all cities.” You have to see the simple, blunt, graphic that Axios editors used to illustrate data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis (there’s a screenshot at the top of this post).

Now, what does this story have to say about religion news and trends?

Absolutely nothing, in terms of specific information or explicit references.

However, if you read this piece carefully and think like a reporter who covers issues linked to religion, morality and culture (and, yes, politics) it’s easy to see a burning fuse in this piece that is attached to many explosive stories in the news today. Here is the overture:

For all the talk of American cities undergoing a renaissance, economic success has been concentrated in a few standout metropolises while the rest either struggle to keep up or fall further behind.

Why it matters: This winner-take-all dynamic has led to stark inequalities and rising tensions — both inside and outside city limits — that are helping to drive our politics off the rails.

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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.

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Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

Heavy lift in 2020? Democrats continue to seek a modernized faith formula that works

After 20 Democratic candidates’ “food fight” debates (thank you, Kamala Harris), pundits are pondering whether Harris or Elizabeth Warren will win their developing faceoff, whether senior citizens Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders are slipping and whether the party is roaming too far left to win the mushy American middle.

Meanwhile, political reporters interested in religion, and religion reporters interested in politics, should examine whether the Democrats can improve their religion outreach after a lackluster 2016 effort, amid perennial predictions that a revivified “religious left” could counterbalance Republicans’ familiar “Religious Right.”

This time around, Democrats have uttered more religious mentions than usual, but hopes center upon one newcomer, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, an outspoken gay Episcopalian.

Asked about immigration during the debate, Episcopalian Buttigieg said “the Republican Party likes to cloak itself in the language of religion” while “our party doesn’t talk about that as much,” largely because of commitment to separation of church and state. Then this: “For a party that associates itself with Christianity to say that it is O.K. to suggest that God would smile on the division of families at the hands of federal agents, that God would condone putting children in cages, has lost all claim to ever use religious language again.”

There’s upcoming news in Buttigieg’s pick for full-time “Faith Engagement Director.” The job ad says the campaign “rejects transactional interactions” in favor of “creative ways to unlock cultural appreciation.” (Translation, please.) Notably, “women, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people are strongly encouraged to apply.” (What, no blacks and Latinos?)

The Democratic Party has already made a similar hire, with the Rev. Dr. Derrick Harkins serving as director of religious outreach, which he also was in 2012. Back then, the left worried he’d lack enthusiasm for open-ended abortion and gay rights, but interviewers will presumably find he’s now fully on board, in the cultural liberalism department.

Harkins was the assistant pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York City and pastor of New Hope Baptist Church in Dallas and Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. Since 2015 he’s been “Senior Vice President for Innovations in Public Programming” at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Under Harkins, the party’s first listening session was with the pro-LGBTQ Union of Affirming Christians.

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'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

 'Bullets Rarely Miss': Rolling Stone offers faith-free vision of suicides in the American West

To the extent that it’s possible to write beautifully about suicide, with sympathetic portraits of people who have killed themselves and of the survivors who must live with the wreckage and agonizing questions of what they could have done differently, Stephen Rodrick has achieved it in “All-American Despair,” a 9,000-word report for Rolling Stone.

This is the type of longform reporting — comparable to the magazine’s field reports from the counterculture’s dance of death at the Altamont Free Concert in 1969 and the trampling of Who fans at a general admission concert in Cincinnati in 1979 — that for many decades made Rolling Stone more than a source for record reviews and lots of first-person-voice (“ … as I drove down the highway with Julia Roberts, I noticed that …”) visits with celebrities.

Yet in these 9,000 words, any concept of God or of a meaningful spiritual side of life is nebulous. The first sentence mentions Toby Lingle’s funeral at Highland Park Community Church after he shot himself.

That’s poignant. Yet there’s no indication of why Highland Park was the host of this somber gathering. Was Lingle an occasional visitor? Was his sister a member? Was it simply a matter of seating capacity?

We learn deeper into the story that whatever faith Lingle had was extinguished by the death of his mother, who protected him from verbal lashings by his father:

Toby and his older brother, Tim, and his sister, Tawny, grew up in the one-gas-station town of Midwest, Wyoming, about 40 miles outside Casper. His graduating class was just 16 kids. His mom was an EMT who answered the doctorless town’s medical questions at all hours. His father was a mean alcoholic who worked in the nearby oil fields before retiring on disability. Often cruel, according to Tawny, their dad took particular pleasure in tormenting his youngest son. When a teenage Toby quit a hard, unforgiving job in the oil fields, his father sneered, “We’re not going to have Christmas this year because of you.”

Toby’s brother joined the Navy, and his sister had a baby and moved away. It was just Mom, Dad and Toby in the small house. Toby’s mom tried to protect him the best she could. But she had her own problems: long, unexplained crying jags that scared her kids. Then, at just 46, a lifetime of smoking caught up with her, and she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Toby took her to Casper for doctor appointments and begged her to stop smoking, but she couldn’t. She died six months later; Toby was 19. Talking to his friends and family, it’s clear that Toby’s emotional growth ended the day his mom and protector died. (His father died two years later.)

“He said, ‘God couldn’t exist if he took our mom,’” Tawny told me at her tidy Casper apartment where Lingle would crash when he was having one of the crying spells that tormented his adult life. “He could never see any good in the world after that.”

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New York Times team explains black Democrats in South Carolina -- without going to church

New York Times team explains black Democrats in South Carolina -- without going to church

If you’ve been reading the political coverage in The New York Times lately, you’ve had a chance — if you are patient and willing to dig deep — to learn a few complex realities about life in today’s complex and often splintered Democratic Party.

Two months ago, the Times ran a very interesting piece with this headline: “The Democratic Electorate on Twitter Is Not the Actual Democratic Electorate.”

The thesis is right there in the headline. Lots of Democrats, especially in the Bible Belt, call themselves “moderates” or even “conservatives.” Lots of them are African-Americans. Yes, it would have been nice if this feature had addressed moral and religious concerns. Here is a key chunk of this must-read report that is based on data from the Hidden Tribes Project.

In recent decades, most of the candidates who have found their core strength among the party’s ideologically consistent, left-liberal activist base have lost. … Establishment candidates won the nomination by counting on the rest of the party’s voters.

The rest of the party is easy to miss. Not only is it less active on social media, but it is also under-represented in the well-educated, urban enclaves where journalists roam. It is under-represented in the Northern blue states and districts where most Democratic politicians win elections.

Many in this group are party stalwarts: people who are Democrats because of identity and self-interest — a union worker, an African-American — more than their policy views. Their votes are concentrated in the South, where Democratic politicians rarely win.

Then there was that interesting Times feature about grassroots pro-life Democrats — in Pennsylvania, of all places (as opposed to the Bible Belt). Check out Julia Duin’s post on that topic: “New York Times finally profiles pro-life Democrats but forgets to add what religion they might be.” I followed up on her must-read post by pointing readers to a New York Post essay that noted that a high percentage of pro-life Democrats in the South are African-Americans who go to church — a lot.

The bottom line: If you are interested in what Democrats in the South think, especially African-American Democrats, it really helps to explore their views on issues linked to religion. Reporters might even want to go to church.

This brings me to a new Times political feature with this headline: “ ‘The Black Vote Is Not Monolithic’: 2020 Democrats Find Split Preferences in South Carolina.

What’s so interesting about this story? Well, for starters it is absolutely faith-free, other than a passing reference to Cory Booker’s style as an orator. This whole story is framed in Democratic Twitter lingo.

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Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

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