Your weekend 'think piece' game: Once again, it's time to play 'Name that pope'

Your weekend 'think piece' game: Once again, it's time to play 'Name that pope'

This weekend's think piece is a kind of game -- a journalism game, to be precise.

It's a game that I have written about in the past, in part because of the billions -- OK, maybe just millions -- of news stories and commentaries that are built on the assumption that the theological content of the work of Pope Benedict XVI is sharply different than that of Pope Francis on just about any issue that you would want to mention.

Now, there are important differences and I know that. That is not my point. My point is that the mainstream press tends to ignore the many things Francis says on hot-button topics that support Catholic orthodoxy (thus, statements that sound like Benedict). There have also been times when journalists have taken statements that, in context, are not all that unusual and turned them into Google-dominating soundbites. Hey, who am I to judge?

In a 2014 "On Religion" column about this "Name that pope" game I offered these examples, among many:

 "The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion."
Name that pope: That's Pope Francis, believe it or not. ...
"It is deplorable that homosexual persons have been and are the object of violent malice in speech or in action. Such treatment deserves condemnation from the church's pastors wherever it occurs."
Name that pope: That's Pope Benedict XVI.

Now, it's time to play "Name that pope" again. Are you ready?

On the subject of the church's traditional doctrine of marriage, stating that marriage is between a man and a woman:

"We cannot change it. This is the nature of things."

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Ponder this: Why did 'Rives Junction Statement' on sex and marriage draw zero news ink?

Ponder this: Why did 'Rives Junction Statement' on sex and marriage draw zero news ink?

Before we dive into this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), please think about this scenario in the news.

Let's assume that a symbolic group of Christian leaders, representing a traditional form of the faith, got together and released a concise statement affirming 2,000 years of orthodox Christian teachings on sex, marriage and gender. What kind of press coverage would such a hypothetical statement receive, under "ordinary" news conditions?

Of course, that's a joke right there. What are "ordinary conditions" in the crazed age of Twitter and a reality television presidency?

But let's take this statement at face value. Let's say that these Christian leaders affirmed that:

* " ... God has established marriage as a lifelong, exclusive relationship between one man and one woman. ..."

*  "... [A]ll intimate sexual activity outside the marriage relationship, whether heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise, is immoral, and therefore sin. ... "

* " ... God created the human race male and female and that all conduct with the intent to adopt a gender other than one’s birth gender is immoral and therefore sin. ... "

* "Marriage can only be between two people whose birth sex is male and female."

You get the idea. This assembly also affirmed that churches should not cooperate with activities that violate these principles, including allowing church properties to be used/rented for events of this kind -- like weddings  

So what kind of press coverage would this statement receive? Would there be an explosion of news reports and online commentary?  Click here to find out.

Maybe the bishops in the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church in America should have called this 2016 document the "Rives Junction Statement"? Maybe then the mayor of Rives Junction, Mich., would have released a press statement condemning it, which would have told reporters that this was big news? What if it was called the "Byzantine Statement"?

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The Atlantic goes there again, when newsrooms avoid another hot church-state story (correction)

The Atlantic goes there again, when newsrooms avoid another hot church-state story (correction)

This is becoming a rather common pattern on a certain type of hot-button story on the Godbeat.

What kind of hot-button story? To be honest, I'm not quite sure whether I'm ready to pin a label on this church-state phenomenon or not. However, we have another one of of these stories, no matter what we call it. Let's walk through this.

Stage 1: Something happens in the public square that combines clear religious content and politics (if possible linked to You Know Who in the White House). Take, for example, a U.S. Senate hearing in which a Notre Dame University law professor who is a traditional Catholic and the mother of seven children is -- since she is being considered for a federal appeals court slot -- bluntly asked: "Are you an orthodox Catholic?" Another senator warns her that Catholic "dogma lives loudly within you."

Stage 2: Conservative and religious news websites, fired by Twitter storms, cover the story. Meanwhile, major news outlets -- starting with The New York Times (still) -- ignore this interesting drama linked to the U.S. Constitution's ban on establishing religious tests for public servants. Click here for my first post on this issue.

Stage 3: The Atlantic then runs an online story which puts the key facts into play, while offering what amounts to a second-day feature analysis story about an event that -- in terms of first-day, hard-news coverage -- doesn't exist in the mainstream press.

Strange, huh?

We are, of course, talking about the whirlwind surrounding 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, a pro-Catechism Catholic legal scholar. The double-decker headline for religion-beat pro Emma Green's feature at The Atlantic says a lot:

Should a Judge's Nomination Be Derailed by Her Faith?
During a recent hearing, Democratic senators pushed an appellate-court nominee to explain how her religious beliefs would affect her legal decisions.

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#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

#RNA2017: Why USA Today's Washington correspondent is looking for faith and religion stories

As I mentioned Thursday, I'm attending the Religion News Association's 68th annual conference in Nashville, Tenn.

Among the interesting people I've met: Paul Singer, Washington correspondent for USA Today.

I talked to Singer about why he came to Music City for this week's conference. Here's a quick transcript (please forgive any typos or other deadline sins).

Q: What is your job with USA Today, and what brings you here?

A: My job officially is running our congressional coverage for USA Today and the hundred newspapers and news outlets in the Gannett network. I have some responsibility for our coverage of the Trump administration as well. I am here on my own interest trying for some stories about faith and religion.

Q: Why do you think that’s important?

A: Because our readers care about it. It is something I know our readers have interest in. Every time we write a story about faith and religion, it gets a lot of traffic and interest. It is an area of interest for me personally because I cover politics, and a big question in the 2016 election was were evangelicals going to look past the personal failings of Donald Trump and support him for political reasons, (because) he’s going help them advance their political agenda.

Q: Do you think this election only makes the need for a religion emphasis that much stronger?

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'Muslim Schindler's list' leader in the Philippines gets nuanced Los Angeles Times' profile

'Muslim Schindler's list' leader in the Philippines gets nuanced Los Angeles Times' profile

I must confess, I had no idea that Islamic State militants have taken over a city in the southern Philippines even though I have friends who live about a two-hour drive from there. I’d visited the island of Mindanao in 1991; a lush and beautiful place that has a history of various rebel groups trying to seize control from the central government.

I’d never heard of the city of Marawi, which isn’t far from where I was in Cotabato City. It is now the scene of a Muslim uprising.

Not much has been written about this conflict in American media until Thursday, which is when the Los Angeles Times ran this amazing story of a local Muslim clan chief who sheltered dozens of Christians in his home. It starts here:

When the first artillery fire rang out one afternoon in May, Norodin Lucman thought of the four workers repairing a cellphone tower on his sprawling property. He sent one of his daughters to tell the men to come in.
Plumes of smoke spiraled up from the city below. But Marawi, home to 200,000 people, had survived armed conflict before, and Lucman assumed this one would end in a few days and his guests would go home.
Soon, though, more people began arriving at his door. Militants were torching homes and schools, freeing prisoners, taking hostages and waving Islamic State flags.
The militants had stopped another group of cell tower workers and demanded that they recite the Shahada, a Muslim proclamation of faith. Marawi is predominantly Muslim. But the men were Christians from nearby cities. They failed the test.
When one tried to escape on his motorbike, the militants shot him dead. Amid the chaos, the nine others managed to flee to Lucman’s house.

The story goes on to tell how the national government sent in troops to quell this uprising while ISIS volunteers were pouring in from around the world to try to establish a foothold in Mindanao. Marawi now lies in ruins.

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Snowflake alert: New survey research on Americans’ religious identities provokes tweet mini-storm

Snowflake alert: New survey research on Americans’ religious identities provokes tweet mini-storm

The Religion Guy has often lauded the Pew Research Center for its valuable survey research on the state of religion in the United States and worldwide, for instance its new (July 26) report on attitudes of U.S. Muslims, a matter of keen interest for journalists.

But a younger think tank also based in Washington, D.C., the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) is also an important source.

It grabbed headlines this week with its report “America’s Changing Religious Identity.” PRRI proclaims its 2016 telephone poll in English and Spanish of 101,438 respondents  is the largest survey of U.S. religious identity ever. The margin of error is minuscule.

There's lots of news here, some of it old news. But it's still important material.

Key findings underscore the already well-documented rise of religiously unaffiliated “nones” alongside a decline in the preponderance of white Christians. (Protestants as a whole had ceased to be a majority of Americans back around the time of the Barack Obama-John McCain campaign.)

Though evangelical Protestantism long expanded or held steady as white “mainline” Protestant churches declined, evangelicals are beginning a delayed but similar slide, from 23 percent of Americans a decade ago to 17 percent currently. Meanwhile, African-American Protestantism is  largely stable.

A breaking news article on this by the carefully non-ideological Rachel Zoll (disclosure: The Religion Guy’s former beat colleague at The AP) provoked a tweet storm, featuring some snowflakes. One outraged tweeter charged that Zoll was “attempting to pass that off as journalism” and said her copy felt like “the type of garbage that fuels racism. Why do we need to know how many Christians are white?”

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#RNA2017: Religion journalists gather in Music City — and GetReligion is on the scene

#RNA2017: Religion journalists gather in Music City — and GetReligion is on the scene

If you're not following it already, here's a Twitter hashtag for you: #RNA2017.

The Religion News Association's 68th annual conference is underway is Music City — Nashville, Tenn. — and two GetReligionistas (Julia Duin and I) will be on the scene.

At the conference this morning, a new survey on U.S. religion was released by Baylor University. Both Religion News Service's Adelle M. Banks and The Tennessean's Holly Meyer had quick stories on the embargoed findings.

Here is the RNS lede:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — Americans who voted for President Trump are often very religious, believe in an authoritative God and hold traditional views about gender.
A new Baylor Religion Survey also found that Trump supporters are more likely than other voters to see Muslims as threats to America and to view the nation as a Christian one.
Almost three-quarters of Trump voters said Islam is a threat, compared with 18 percent of those who voted for Hillary Clinton. An even higher percentage — 81 percent — of Trump voters strongly agreed that Middle East refugees are a terror threat, compared with 12 percent of Clinton voters.
“Today, divisions in the American public are stark,” said Paul Froese, a Baylor University sociology professor and director of Baylor Religion Surveys. “We can trace many of our deep differences to how people understand traditional morality, theology and the purpose of our nation.”

And from The Tennessean:

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Mirror image time: Zero news about Catholic nominee for federal court being grilled on her faith?

Mirror image time: Zero news about Catholic nominee for federal court being grilled on her faith?

So, did you read all the stories about the liberal Episcopalian who was nominated to a federal appeals court seat, only to be grilled about her religious beliefs -- with subtle references to her same-sex marriage -- by evangelical Protestants, Mormons and Catholics in a U.S. Senate hearing?

I mean, one senator called her a Communist because of her decision to speak at a meeting of the American Civil Liberties Union. One conservative Anglican on the committee questioned whether her vocal support for her church's doctrine should block her appointment to a federal court. Another conservative Anglican asked her point blank: "Are you a liberal Episcopalian?”

Wait, you didn't see coverage of that story by journalists at major newspapers and cable networks?

Right, I made that up. But can you imagine the mainstream press failing to spotlight a story in which fundamentalist yahoos did something like that to a liberal religious believer?

Me either. So did I miss something when we had that story in reverse? I searched all over for mainstream coverage of this real story, including at the newspaper of record. Scan this simple Google News search and tell me if I blinked and missed something important.

Now let's turn to alternative, "conservative" media outlets and look at this real story -- only reversed in a journalistic mirror. In the real world, we have a pro-Catechism Catholic nominee, a Notre Dame University law professor and mother of seven, facing a liberal Catholic senator. The consistently #NeverTrump National Review reported:

... [D]uring a confirmation hearing for 7th Circuit Court of Appeals nominee Amy Coney Barrett, Democratic senator Dianne Feinstein attacked the nominee for her Roman Catholic faith.
Barrett is a law professor at the University of Notre Dame who has written about the role of religion in public life and delivered academic lectures to Christian legal groups. ...
“When you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you,” Feinstein said.

At another point in this drama:

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Media blitz follows survey saying Brits have 'no religion,' but enlightenment remains elusive

Media blitz follows survey saying Brits have 'no religion,' but enlightenment remains elusive

Cue the R.E.M. video again.

This time for the United Kingdom, where a survey reveals a stunning number of folks who say they embrace no faith at all. Yep, the nation where Queen Elizabeth is, officially, "By the Grace of God, Queen, and Defender of the Faith," is ... losing its religion.

Of course, there's more to it than the headlines, and more than many reporters and editors seem to have grasped. By reporting the news on the surface data alone, the media are missing key questions, let alone reporting any answers.

Let's begin with the most venerable of British journalistic institutions, the BBC, which reports:

For the first time, more than half of people in the UK do not identify as religious, a survey suggests.
Last year 53% of people described themselves as having "no religion", in a survey of 2,942 adults by the National Centre for Social Research.
Among those aged between 18 and 25, the proportion was higher at 71%.
The Bishop of Liverpool said God and the Church "remains relevant" and that saying "no religion was not the same as considered atheism".

There's a lot to consider here, but one of the key elements missing is any consideration of why this has happened and what it might mean, other than calls for defunding of the state-sanctioned Church of England and of religious schools by the government.

As you read, look for signs that some forms of religions are growing and others are in decline.

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