Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

Eyes of Texas are on religious leaders -- pro and con -- as state debates transgender-friendly bathrooms

As you may recall, I was not impressed with initial media reporting on a transgender-related bathroom bill in Texas.

Perhaps the title of my January post --  "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" -- gives some clue as to my overall analysis of the news coverage.

Fast-forward to recent stories on religious leaders in the Lone Star State entering the fray, and I'm feeling a little more generous in my appraisal.

The Austin American-Statesman, in particular, deserves a high passing grade for its fair, evenhanded treatment of the Godbeat angle.

I should stress that I'm grading on a curve because the American-Statesman — like other news organizations — faced the difficulty of reporting on both sides when one side closed its proceedings to the press. 

The lede from the Austin newspaper:

The fight over legislation to block transgender-friendly bathroom policies ventured into the religious realm Thursday as faith leaders gathered in Austin to promote competing views.
The day began with a closed-door briefing for Christian pastors by Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, Attorney General Ken Paxton and other state officials who see religious support as crucial to the passage of Senate Bill 6, which would limit the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.
The event by the U.S. Pastor Council was billed as “show up time” for those who would lead the fight in support of the bill.
That was followed by an afternoon gathering of more than 40 religious leaders — many holding signs reading “My faith does not discriminate” — who oppose SB 6 as immoral.
“Our lawmakers are considering anti-transgender bathroom bills and bills that come disguised as religious freedom — dangerous pieces of legislation that place a religious mask over what amounts to state-sanctioned discrimination,” said the Rev. Taylor Fuerst of First United Methodist Church, where the event was held.

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Religious questions play no role in this boring Chronicle of Higher Education look at polyamory

Religious questions play no role in this boring Chronicle of Higher Education look at polyamory

One of the questions that your GetReligionistas hear from readers all the time is this: "What is the mainstream press?"

That isn't the precise wording, of course, since readers are usually asking about specific publications. They want to know if The Daily Beast is "mainstream," which is a question that we've been asking for years. They want to know if MSNBC and Fox News are "mainstream." The answer is "yes," but you have to know the difference between news shows and opinion shows.

It also helps to remember that these are strange times. These days, one is just as likely to see a hard-news story from Baptist Press (or the Catholic News Agency) that quotes several qualified, on-the-record sources on both sides of a debate about a hot-button social issue as you are to see that happen in, well, the New York Times. On most religious and social issues, the Times is mainstream -- but with a doctrinal point of view. Sort of like Baptist Press?

This brings me to an interesting feature that ran in a very, very establishment, mainstream publication -- The Chronicle of Higher Education. The doubledecker headline proclaims: " ‘I Have Multiple Loves’ -- Carrie Jenkins makes the philosophical case for polyamory."

Now, this long piece is called a "review," since it sort of focuses on this scholar's book "What Love Is: And What It Could Be." Yet anyone who has lived and worked in the world of higher education knows that, in the format of the Chronicle, this is actually a first-person, reported feature story about an important news topic. What is the topic, in this case? Which word is more important, "philosophical" or "polyamory"? Here is the overture:

Carrie Ichikawa Jenkins and I have plans to meet her boyfriend for lunch. But first we have to go home to walk the dog. Her husband, Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa, is out of town at a conference for the weekend, and earlier that morning Mezzo, their labradoodle mix, got skunked; Jenkins says Mezzo is still feeling shaky. Before I traveled to meet her in Vancouver last June, she told me on the phone that most "mono" people misunderstand the challenges of polyamory -- the practice of being openly involved romantically with more than one person at a time.
"People ask, ‘Tell me about the downsides,’ " Jenkins says. "They expect the answer to be that it’s so hard jealousy-wise. But the most common answer is timing and scheduling. I’m a fairly organized person, so I don’t find it super challenging."

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Here's story of a saintly Muslim immigrant -- with very few details about his faith

Here's story of a saintly Muslim immigrant -- with very few details about his faith

You could not not read this story when it appeared a few days ago in the Los Angeles Times. Everything started with that headline: “ ‘I knew they were going to die.’ This foster father only takes in terminally ill children.”

Here was a well-told story about an unassuming Muslim man doing a heroic task. And -- he's an immigrant!

The Times wasn't going subtle with this message aimed at Donald Trump. Want to kick out immigrants, this article almost says. Want to start with this guy? 

OK, we get the point. It is beautifully written, but there are some big blank spots. The story starts with:

The children were going to die.
Mohamed Bzeek knew that. But in his more than two decades as a foster father, he took them in anyway -- the sickest of the sick in Los Angeles County’s sprawling foster care system.
Now, Bzeek spends long days and sleepless nights caring for a bedridden 6-year-old foster girl with a rare brain defect. She’s blind and deaf. She has daily seizures. Her arms and legs are paralyzed.
Bzeek, a quiet, devout Libyan-born Muslim who lives in Azusa, just wants her to know she’s not alone in this life. 
“I know she can’t hear, can’t see, but I always talk to her,” he said. “I’m always holding her, playing with her, touching her. … She has feelings. She has a soul. She’s a human being.”

The article then informs us that out of 35,000 children in the city’s foster care system, 600 of them are in dire medical straits. As for those who are dying,  only one person is available to take care of any of them. The story doesn’t say it outright, but these are all children who were dumped by their parents.

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'Footloose' controversy in small-town Oklahoma: Was church near canceled dance unfairly targeted? (updated)

'Footloose' controversy in small-town Oklahoma: Was church near canceled dance unfairly targeted? (updated)

It's best known as the hometown of Hall of Fame quarterback Troy Aikman.

Last week, though, the small community of Henryetta, Okla., made national headlines not for its famous football cleats — but for putting away its dancing shoes.

Get ready: We gotta cut loose with some "Footloose" references. 

I first heard about the controversy via USA Today:

Kevin Bacon would not stand for this.
A businesswoman in the tiny city of Henryetta, Oklahoma, canceled a planned Valentine's Day dance after someone unearthed an old city ordinance that bans dancing within 500 feet of a church or school. It's a predicament reminiscent of the 1984 classic Footloose.
The city of about 6,000 people just south of Tulsa has had the law on the books for years. The Henryetta Code Book is pretty clear: "No public dance hall shall be permitted where the same is located within 500 feet of any church or public school."
Sounds just like Rev. Moore.

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When politics shatter relationships: Does anyone else sense a religion ghost in Reuters report?

When politics shatter relationships: Does anyone else sense a religion ghost in Reuters report?

It's a story that, in one form or another, has become a mainstream news staple during the media meltdown after the election of Donald Trump as president. I am talking about the Wars On Facebook phenomenon, the whole idea that this election has driven painful, emotional wedges into families and circles of friends, severing the ties that bind.

It's a hot story because, for many people, it's absolutely true. This is really happening out there in social-media land and in the real world or real people. The question, of course, is "Why?" What are these divisions really about?

In most of the coverage the key issue is Trump himself -- period.

For journalists, it appears, Americans are either for Trump or against him. However, anyone who has read deeper into the coverage -- especially polls focusing on religious voters -- knows that millions of voters did not vote for Trump because they wanted Trump. They voted against Hillary Clinton, in part because of their concerns about moral and social issues (think religious liberty, as well) and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Thus, at the very least, there are three divisions at the heart of the Wars On Facebook phenomenon. Anyone -- oh, like me -- who was #NeverTrump #NeverHillary knows that.

So what are these highly personal social-media spats really about? Yes, might there -- if "pew wars" principles remain in effect -- be a religion ghost or two haunting these faith-free stories?

The other day, Mark "KMark" Kellner sent out a perfect example of this phenomenon, care of Reuters. I call this story it perfect because it contains absolutely zero content about religion and/or moral and social issues. The headline: "From disputes to a breakup: wounds still raw after U.S. election." Here is the overture:

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -- Burning passions over Donald Trump's presidency are taking a personal toll on both sides of the political divide. For Gayle McCormick, it is particularly wrenching: she has separated from her husband of 22 years.

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Why was DeVos fight so bitter? In this case the cultural warfare was totally logical

Why was DeVos fight so bitter? In this case the cultural warfare was totally logical

So how did Betsy DeVos end up being the wicked witch of the Calvinist Midwest?

That's one way of stating the main topic of this past week's "Crossroads" podcast, which was recorded a day later than normal for technical reasons. Click here to tune that in, please.

In addition to talking about the hammer and tongs warfare over the DeVos nomination to serve as Secretary of Education, host Todd Wilken and I also talked about the fact that the whole subject of alternative forms of education in America -- think charter schools, homeschooling, etc. -- is not something that breaks down into easy left vs. right categories, when it comes to politics and religion. Click here to see my earlier post on that.

But the key to the DeVos war was that there was really nothing unusual about it, for reasons that Ross Douthat explained in a column for The New York Times. The bottom line was the bottom line: It is hard to name a culture wars army that provides more muscle and campaign funding to the modern Democratic Party than the public educational elites and the unions that serve them. We are talking about millions and millions of dollars, year after year after year.

Here is Douthat, who as always is guilty of linear, logical thinking:

... Somehow it was DeVos who became, in the parlance of cable-news crawls, Trump’s “most controversial nominee.” Never mind that Trump’s logorrheic nationalism barely has time for education. Never mind that local control of schools makes the Education Department a pretty weak player. Never mind that Republican views on education policy are much closer to the expert consensus than they are on, say, climate change. Never mind that the bulk of DeVos’s school-choice work places her only somewhat to the right of the Obama administration’s pro-charter-school positioning, close to centrist Democrats like Senator Cory Booker. None of that mattered: Against her and (so far) only her, Democrats went to the barricades, and even dragged a couple of wavering Republicans along with them.
DeVos did look unprepared and even foolish at times during her confirmation hearings, and she lacks the usual government experience. But officially the opposition claimed to be all about hardheaded policy empiricism. A limited and heavily regulated charter school program is one thing, the argument went, but DeVos’s zeal for free markets would gut public education and turn kids over to the not-so-tender mercies of unqualified bottom-liners.

DeVos is the living symbol of everything the educational establishment hates, a woman with zero personal ties to public schools and years of experience in fighting for alternatives -- especially for the poor and those caught in substandard urban school zones. As I noted in the podcast, of course Democrats went to the mattresses to stop her from becoming secretary of education. Her nomination was something like proposing Elton John as the next leader of Focus on the Family.

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Ideal doctoral dissertation for the Trump Epoch: Washington's religious lobbyists

Ideal doctoral dissertation for the Trump Epoch: Washington's religious lobbyists

Last May 9, Donald Trump tweeted (yes, at 3:05 a.m.) that the Rev. Dr. Russell Moore is “truly a terrible representative of evangelicals,” not to mention “a nasty guy with no heart!”

As beat specialists know, Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, had issued numerous sharp moral denunciations of Trump during the campaign.

Nonetheless, Moore has now found one deed of President Trump worth praise. The Baptist was first out of the box in religious maneuvering over Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court nomination, within hours rallying 52 evangelical Protestant leaders to endorse the Episcopalian. The 52 declared that the “Senate should work diligently to confirm his appointment without obstruction.” Good luck with that.

By coincidence, the day of the Gorsuch announcement patheos.com blogger Jacob Lupfer lauded the ERLC’s effectiveness as the socio-political voice of America’s biggest Protestant denomination. Lupfer said the experts consider this “highly professional” shop to be “definitively the premier conservative evangelical public-policy organization,” which outpaces “just about any other faith group involved in politics.”

Lupfer admits he is “an unlikely person” to say such things, considering his own  disagreements with the Baptists' views.

But here is an alert for scribes: In April he completes a Georgetown University political science dissertation about religious lobbies in Washington, D.C. This study should provide journalists good grist for an article, with a book sure to follow, and Lupfer will remain a quotable source throughout the Trump Epoch.

Moore issued a Christmastime semi-apology if anyone thought he scorned  Christians who voted for Trump, explaining: “There’s a massive difference between someone who enthusiastically excused immorality, and someone who felt conflicted, weighed the options based on biblical convictions, and voted their conscience.” He's also come under fire from some Southern Baptists because his agency supports religious freedom for Muslims seeking to build new mosques. 

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When it comes to covering controversial petitions, the little guy in the list may be the big story

When it comes to covering controversial petitions, the little guy in the list may be the big story

It’s hard to make a petition sound exciting, but there are ways. A few days ago, a bunch of evangelical Protestant leaders signed a petition denouncing the Trump refugee ban and ran it in a full-page ad in the Washington Post. Being that such ads cost somewhere north of $30K, that was a substantial outlay for World Relief, the sponsor.

I am surprised that other than CNN, the Post itself, The Hill and The Guardian, most other publications ignored it, or simply rewrote CNN’s piece.

I’ll start with CNN’s account, as I believe they broke the story:

(CNN) -- Scores of evangelical leaders, including at least one from each state, have taken out a full-page newspaper advertisement to denounce President Donald Trump's temporary ban on refugees, urging him to reconsider his executive order and welcome people fleeing persecution and violence.
On January 27, Trump issued an executive order that temporarily restricts travelers from seven majority-Muslim countries, suspends the US Refugee Admissions Program for four months, indefinitely bars Syrian refugees and reduces the number of refugees the United States will accept from 110,000 to 50,000.
The evangelicals' advertisement, which is slated to run in The Washington Post, is signed by 100 prominent evangelical pastors and authors, including some who rarely wade into politics. It is addressed to Trump and Vice President Mike Pence.
Signees include Pastor Timothy Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, Christian author Ann Voskamp, Bill and Lynne Hybels of Willow Creek Community Church, preacher and author Max Lucado, Pastor Eugene Cho of Quest Church and Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals.
CNN obtained an early copy of the advertisement, which appears in the name of World Relief, an evangelical relief organization that has resettled thousands of refugees in the United States. In addition to the leaders who signed the print ad, hundreds more have endorsed its message online, said Scott Arbeiter, World Relief's President.

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How one Bible Belt congregation welcomes refugees: A Godbeat pro offers interesting insight

How one Bible Belt congregation welcomes refugees: A Godbeat pro offers interesting insight

I'm on the road, reporting a few stories for The Christian Chronicle. I spent Wednesday in Houston, a resettlement magnet that has been called the "City of Refugees," interviewing a few people close to the issue. 

As court challenges and other news related to President Donald Trump's temporary ban on refugees keep making headlines, I'm interested in the religion angles that Godbeat pros and other journalists are finding.

Because of my travel this week, I haven't followed the latest developments as closely as I normally would, but I bookmarked one compelling feature before I left home. It's an insightful piece by Holly Meyer, religion writer for The Tennessean, on how refugees shaped one Nashville church.

Meyer's lede: 

Pastor Jerome Songolo, a refugee who fled the strife-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, kneeled with his eyes closed and his hands half raised as he received a blessing Sunday as the new spiritual leader of an East Nashville congregation.
Many of its members have followed a similar path to the United States. Those seated in the rows of folding chairs at Nashville First Church of the Nazarene cheered as Songolo and Petronie Karaj, the new associate pastor, were installed as ministers of the church's African congregation.
The solemn, but joyful moment illustrated just how deeply rooted refugees are in the city's faith community, not just here in Nashville but across the nation.
The Rev. Kevin Ulmet, senior pastor of the church, recounted the African congregation's nearly two-year history during his Sunday sermon. Songolo stood beside him translating his words from English to Swahili. While Ulmet praised their past work, he emphasized their future.

 

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