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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Ballot-box religion ghost for 2018? U.S. Senate races plus Supreme Court heat equals ...

Surely it says something about the current state of American politics and religion when the organization Democrats For Life sends out a press release celebrating the election of one — count ‘em, one — new pro-life member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Just a reminder: I have stated many times that I was a pro-life and registered Democrat my whole adult life — until the 2016 White House race. I am now a registered member of a tiny (in America) third party that’s progressive on economic issues and conservative on cultural issues (other than being old-school liberal on the First Amendment).

But back to that release from Democrats For Life, celebrating a win in the rather unique political environment of Utah:

ANOTHER PRO-LIFE DEMOCRAT

A bright spot this election cycle is the election of Ben McAdams in Utah’s 4th Congressional District. Twice elected the mayor of Salt Lake County, McAdams may be the kind of Democrat we need. He has a history of bringing people together to provide solutions.

On his campaign website, he stressed his bipartisan cooperation.

”Ben worked with both sides of the aisle in the Utah Legislature and as Salt Lake County mayor to balance the budget and act on important initiatives. He will continue to work with colleagues in both parties to overcome Washington’s broken politics and put Utah families first. He has proven bringing people together helps to solve tough problems like homelessness and criminal justice reform....”

Meanwhile, a member of an even more endangered political species — a pro-life Democrat incumbent in the U.S. Senate — lost his seat. If you followed the race carefully, it was obvious that Sen. Joe Donnelly had trouble separating himself from those “other” Democrats” during the firestorm surrounding U.S. Supreme Court nominee, and now justice, Brett Kavanaugh.

This brings me to the main theme in this week’s “Crossroads” podcast, which focused on the rare glimpses of religion during the mainstream news coverage of the 2018 Midterm elections. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes to subscribe.

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Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

Thinking about Trump, young evangelicals, The New York Times and ... Screwtape

If you have heard of the great Christian apologist C.S. Lewis, then you have probably heard of three things — a land called Narnia, “Mere Christianity” and a demon named Screwtape.

The format of the bestseller “The Screwtape Letters” is unique, to say the least. In this painfully clever book, a senior demon named Screwtape offers guidance to a young tempter — his nephew Wormwood — on the art of steering a human soul into the land of “Our Father Below.”

Now, the purpose of this think piece is not Christian apologetics.

Instead, it is to consider one of Screwtape’s most famous observations and what it has to do with — brace yourself — Donald Trump, modern evangelicals and The New York Times.

Yes, this is linked to that much-discussed Times feature that ran with this headline: “ ‘God Is Going to Have to Forgive Me’: Young Evangelicals Speak Out.” How did this piece come to be?

With just days left before the midterm elections — two years after President Trump won the White House with a record share of white, evangelical support — we asked young evangelicals to tell The Times about the relationship between their faith and their politics.

Nearly 1,500 readers replied, from every state but Alaska and Vermont. Hundreds wrote long essays about their families and communities. They go to prominent megachurches as well as small Southern Baptist, nondenominational and even mainline Protestant congregations. Some said they have left evangelicalism altogether.

Yes, 1,500 young evangelicals is an impressive number. At the same time, as several digital correspondents told me, it’s amazing the degree to which the voices in this unscientific survey that ended up in print — in the world’s most powerful newspaper — sound exactly like you would expect young evangelical Times readers to sound.

Please read the Times piece for yourself.

Then turn to this friendly commentary about this Times feature written by one of America’s most outspoken #NeverTrump evangelical scribes — religious-liberty expert David French, a Harvard Law School graduate who writes for National Review.

But before we get there, please think about this snippet from Letter 25 by master Screwtape, a letter with tremendous relevance for Trumpian evangelicals of all ages as well as the leaders of the growing evangelical left:

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You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

You’ll collect story ideas and contacts galore at religious eggheads’ annual extravaganza

Each year, thousands upon thousands of religion scholars assemble during the days preceding Thanksgiving for simultaneous conventions of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the professional counterpart for Scripture specialists, the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL). This year, the two organizations gather November 17-20, in Denver. Coverage this month, or planned for a year hence, is a good investment for forward-looking media with the cash and the interest.

The Religion Guy has attended several of these egghead extravaganzas and attests that it’s no simple task. The 300 pages of program listings accessible here (.pdf) and here (.pdf) offer many #MEGO (my eyes glaze over) sessions aimed at specialists. But you’ll discover journalistic wheat amid the hyper-technical chaff, usually concepts for future stories rather than breaking news (though one year The Guy scored a dandy AP spot story).

Equally important, you can prowl the exhibit hall and corridors to greet and collect contact info from a dizzying variety of expert sources. AAR’s communications director Amy Parker can facilitate coverage of both the AAR and SBL (phone 404-727-1401 or email via that website mentioned above).

The two conventions are such a magnet that several organizations schedule meetings in conjunction with the big show, as in the following examples.

Speakers at the Biblical Archaeology Review “fest” November 16-18 will range from star skeptic Bart Ehrman to evangelical exegete Ben Witherington. This magazine is in the business of translating historical disputes for non-specialists and it’s must reading for reporters who want to follow such developments.

Westar Institute, whose much-publicized “Jesus Seminar” strived to debunk New Testament authenticity, will meet November 16 on two follow-up projects, promoting varied movements that fought orthodoxy in Christianity’s early centuries, and pondering “post-theism,” including this: “Why should we talk about God at all?”

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Keeping up: Transgender challenges ahead for news media and 'mainline' Protestants

Keeping up:  Transgender challenges ahead for news media and 'mainline' Protestants

The New York Times reported this week that the Donald Trump Administration is considering, for federal purposes, a definition that a person is male or female “based on immutable biological traits identified by or before birth,” supplemented if necessary by genetic testing. That would overturn a policy under President Obama to recognize transgender identities.

The Times team repeatedly used the new “Mx.” identifier preferred by Jill Soloway in a lengthy October 14 feature about pro-transgender media. Formerly a married heterosexual raising two sons, Soloway now identifies as “non-binary” after “peeling off” physical femininity (breasts, clothing, hair, makeup) so that “I’m like nothing. Just human.” Soloway produces films and plans to publish a book about “gender-creative” parents who keep their child’s gender “a secret.”

Weeks before that, the Times “Ethicist” column fielded a questioner’s “moral aversion” against attending friends’ “gender reveal party” to celebrate their firstborn because that would affirm “gender binarism.” Prof. Kwame Appiah’s response deemed attendance OK assuming the parents would be equally happy if an infant girl later becomes “a boy, or neither a boy nor a girl.”

There are challenges here not only for elite media policies but for members of “mainline” Protestant churches, clergy and seminiarians. Consider Yale Divinity School’s Reflections magazine edited by Ray Waddle, former religion writer with Nashville’s Tennessean. The current issue — texts not yet posted online — blends support for the budding transgender cause with opposition to patriarchy and #MeToo abuse.

The trans movement says gender identity is “assigned” by the culture, and thus changeable, avoiding considerations of birth genitalia (Yale doesn’t mention chromosomes).

This approach is gaining. Ligonier Ministries’ biennial survey on Americans’ beliefs finds 46 percent of Millennials under age 35 agree “somewhat” or “strongly” that one’s “gender identity is a matter of choice.”

Journalists will ponder words in Yale’s “gender identity & affirmation” guide (.pdf here and note that the “worlkplace” typo in URL is needed for access). Each person’s “PGP” (preferred gender pronoun) is to be followed, and new labels observed — “transgender” not “transsexual,” “gender-affirming surgery” not “sex change,” “cross-dresser” not “transvestite,” or “cisgender” instead of “binary” male or female.

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Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Election Day 2018 culminates the universally proclaimed “year of the woman” in American politics. The media will be totaling up victors among the unprecedented number of female candidates and checking whether exit polls show a Donald Trump-era widening of the “gender gap” between the customary majorities of women for Democrats and men for Republicans.

Except for pondering evangelicals’ GOP fealty, the media often ignore religious factors that sometimes rival or exceed the impact of that male-female divide.

This time around, will the usual religious alignments persist? Intensify? Reporters should include this in the agenda for post-election analyses.

The related “God gap” came to the fore in 2004 when Democrat John Kerry scored 62 percent with voters who said they never attended religious services vs. churchgoers’ lopsided support for Republican George W. Bush. (Through much of U.S. history there was little difference in basic religiosity between the two major parties, while Protestants leaned Republican and Catholics Democratic.) State-by-state exit polls are unlikely to ask about that and data won’t come till later.

Since 2004, religiously unaffiliated “nones” have increased substantially in polling numbers. Pew Research says they made up fully 28 percent of Democratic voters in the 2014 midterms, outpacing all religious blocs in the party's coalition. Democratic nones neatly balance out evangelicals’ perennial Republican enthusiasm, but pundits say it’s tough for Democrats to organize them on campaign support and turnout.

Now, something new may be occurring.

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Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.

Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.

Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

Progressive Catholics love them, big time.

Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

You may have noticed a pattern.

The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.

It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).

This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):

It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.

A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.

Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows.

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RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

Let’s have a short religion-beat test.

When a story is built on media contacts with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists, you are really with what part of the cultural and doctrinal part of the marketplace of American religion?

(Cue the think music)

I see that hand on a religion-news desk! These are outspoken churches on the Religious Left. The United Church of Christ is the elite flock that was home to President Barack Obama.

Now, would you be surprised to find out, on cultural issues, group’s such as the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Jewish Women and Muslim networks linked to the pink-hat Women’s March hail from the same basic zip code, in terms of moral, social and religious issues?

Now, what else do these groups have in common? Well, they are all, to be blunt, they are all tiny, in terms of the size of their flocks. However, they have lots of connections in the media-rich Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Odds are, when you see headlines that say “Religious groups” gather to protest this, that or the other, you are talking about these groups, often accompanied by progressive Catholic nuns dressed in pant suits.

What’s my point? Well, it is not that reporters should avoid covering them. GetReligion has been calling for increased coverage of the Religious Left — especially on religious issues, not just political issues — since we went online in 2004.

No, liberal believers matter. However, experienced reporters know that these groups are small and that portraying them as diverse, influential groups that represent mainline Christianity is, well, just about as fair as saying First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Liberty University are perfect voices for all of American evangelicalism.

That brings us to a very normal Religion News Service story with this headline: “After Senate clash, Kavanaugh nomination an occasion for prayer.” The overture:

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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