Religious Liberty

When French journalists report on evangelicalism, they often get it wrong

When French journalists report on evangelicalism, they often get it wrong

As a college sophomore, I studied in France; one of the better decisions I made in my life. Visiting religious services helped me grow my vocabulary, so I haunted Assemblies of God, an InterVarsity group and a Sephardic synagogue in Strasbourg; Baptist congregations in Toulouse and Catholic charismatic groups in Paris.

Which is why I was interested in a piece on French evangelicals, written by veteran religion reporter Tom Heneghan — who has been based overseas for as long as I can remember. Back in the ‘70s when I was in college, evangelical Protestants were a tiny minority in France, as basically everyone was Roman Catholic. But the latter was facing lots of empty churches, whereas the former was taking the long view in terms of growing their presence in Europe.

Forty years later, evangelical flocks are much stronger. And, thanks to African immigrants (who have bolstered Protestant churches all over Europe), they’re more black than white. The photo that runs with this piece shows a crowd of mainly African-origin folks.

PARIS (RNS) — When evangelical voters cheer on President Trump in the United States or newly elected leader Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, probably the last thing on their minds is that they might be creating problems for fellow evangelicals elsewhere in the world.

It’s one of the first things that evangelicals in France think about, however, because many other French people instinctively link the small but growing evangelical presence here with large political movements abroad that they don’t like…

Hostile local officials can refuse permission to rent a hall, sponsor a gospel concert or distribute Bibles at a farmers market. Strictly secularist politicians can propose tighter controls on religion in public.

France has a radically different religious history than the United States. The French Revolution was all about freedom from religion; the American experiment was about freedom of religion. So there’s an undercurrent of animosity against religion in France that one doesn’t pick up here across the pond. For many, the true faith is a blend of national pride and secularism.

Plus, their view of evangelicals is tainted by politics. In 2004, Le Nouvel Observateur, a French magazine, called them “the sect that wants to conquer the world.” Its article ran alongside a photo of President George W. Bush standing next to a cross.

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French teacher with vague Christian beliefs is fired for rejecting transgender pronouns

French teacher with vague Christian beliefs is fired for rejecting transgender pronouns

Greetings from the LGBTQ front lines, where this article caused a lot of chatter last week. It has all the earmarks of a good culture wars story: transgenderism, sex, the First Amendment, tax dollars and public schools. What more could you want?

What is my journalism issue with this Richmond Times-Dispatch story? The French teacher at the center of this employment drama insists that he is acting on his Christian beliefs — beliefs so vague that readers aren’t told what they are or how they relate to the student.

Here’s a good First Amendment/religious liberty story brewing here, yet readers are told next to nothing about the crucial facts about the role of religion in this case. For example: Try to find a reference to the teacher’s church tradition and its doctrines.

WEST POINT — A Virginia high school teacher was fired Thursday for refusing to use a transgender student’s new pronouns, a case believed to be the first of its kind in the state.

After a four-hour hearing, the West Point School Board voted 5-0 to terminate Peter Vlaming, a French teacher at West Point High School who resisted administrators’ orders to use male pronouns to refer to a ninth-grade student who had undergone a gender transition. The board met in closed session for nearly an hour before the vote.

Like a similar transgender rights case in nearby Gloucester County that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, Vlaming’s situation could present a novel legal case as public bodies continue to grapple with how to reconcile anti-discrimination policies with the rights of religious employees.

All this is taking place not far from colonial Williamsburg in southeastern Virginia.

Vlaming, 47, who had taught at the school for almost seven years after spending more than a decade in France, told his superiors his Christian faith prevented him from using male pronouns for a student he saw as female.

The student’s family informed the school system of the transition over the summer. Vlaming said he had the student in class the year before when the student identified as female.

Maybe this is evident to the reporter, but what about the teacher’s Christian faith is forbidding him to change pronouns on this student?

Does he feel he is lying? Does he believe that gender is linked to DNA, at conception? I am curious.

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South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

South China Morning Post's religious potpourri includes Buddhist nuns and winter spirituality

I love perusing through the South China Morning Post, surely the world’s most exotic mainline news outlet. A glance at their web site reveals everything from a journey through southern Tajikstan and a list of the best cities on the Silk Road to a piece on minimalist Japanese design and Chinese rice entrepreneurs.

Put “religion” in its search bar and you’ll get wonderful literary morsels about a monastery in remote Sichuan where wine-colored-robed Buddhist nuns must spend 100 days outside in unheated huts during the winter; how the actress who inspired India’s MeToo movement felt “inspired by God” and how a second ethnic Chinese politician, who is also a Protestant, is facing blasphemy charges in Indonesia.

The Indonesian piece is fascinating in how it openly wonders if religious freedom is at all possible in Muslim-majority Indonesia these days. And then there’s another piece on rampaging Hindu mobs angry with anyone who transports cows to slaughter houses or sells beef.

I wanted to draw attention to the Buddhist nuns piece, by freelance photographer Douglas Hook, because it’s related to other news on how China oppresses its religious minorities. We’ve all heard about the criminal behavior the Chinese government is showing toward its Uiygar minority in western China.

High in the mountains of Sichuan province, more than 10,000 Buddhist monks and nuns live in the austere surroundings of the Yarchen Gar monastery. Here, they follow the teachings of leader Asong Tulku, who counsels meditation and atonement for his disciples, and is revered as a living Buddha.

Established in 1985 by Lama Achuk Rinpoche, Yarchen Gar – officially known as Yaqing Orgyan – is located in Baiyu county, in western Sichuan’s Garzê Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. At 4,000 metres above sea level the difficult-to-reach monastery boasts one of the largest congrega­tions of monks and nuns in the world.

Because most of the devout here are women, Yarchen Gar has been called the “city of nuns”.

One reason this monastery has been growing is because Communist cadres have been taking over a larger monastery to the north.

Numbers at Yarchen Gar are rising once again due to evictions of Tibetans from a larger monastery, Larung Gar, to the north, where author­ities are acting to reduce the 40,000-strong congregation. Preparations are ongoing in Yarchen Gar to accommodate this influx of devotees. Roads are being built and sewers installed, and a massive temple is being erected in the eastern section, near the monks’ quarters.

Read this piece to find out how the Chinese government is borrowing from its Uighur Muslim playbook in terms of weakening religious groups by forcing them into jails or by installing atheist leaders as administrators.

Despite the use of smartphones along with other modern conveniences,

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Unitarians in the desert: A few basic facts go a long way in explaining religious freedom lawsuit

Unitarians in the desert: A few basic facts go a long way in explaining religious freedom lawsuit

I’m shaking my head.

The answer was easy. So easy.

Why then didn’t NPR bother to include it?

Here’s what I’m talking about: Back in October, I wrote about an NPR piece with a compelling title of “Deep In The Desert, A Case Pits Immigration Crackdown Against Religious Freedom.”

I offered lukewarm praise for parts of that report, but mostly I questioned the lack of specific facts concerning the lawsuit and, more precisely, the religion angle. I noted that NPR mentioned a humanitarian aid organization called No More Deaths and quoted a volunteer named Scott Warren.

But I complained:

Is it too much to want to know the specific nature of Warren’s religious beliefs? Does he belong to an actual faith group? Or are his beliefs purely personal in nature?

Such information would be extremely helpful and enlightening to know.

Fast-forward to today when the Wall Street Journal published a story on the same lawsuit.

And guess what? The Journal nails the crucial details that NPR missed. I love it when that happens!

Let’s start at the top — and see if any vital information that NPR missed doesn’t grab you up high:

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Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

Thinking about missionaries: Arrogant fools or believers obeying core Christian doctrines?

It didn’t take long for the John Allen Chau affair (see previous Julia Duin post) to make the leap from hard-news coverage to newspaper op-ed pages and other “Culture War” venues.

Before looking at two examples, from the cultural left and then the right, let’s pause for a second for a bit of background.

Faithful GetReligion readers may remember the “tmatt trio,” a set of doctrinal questions that I have, for several decades now, found useful when exploring debates inside Christian flocks or cultural conflicts about the Christian faith. I am convinced that the Chau affair is linked to one of these hot-button questions.

Please remember that the purpose of these questions is journalistic. I have learned that asking them always leads to answers that contain all kinds of interesting information. Here is the “tmatt trio” once again:

(1) Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this event really happen?

(2) Is salvation found through Jesus Christ, alone? Was Jesus being literal when he said, "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through me" (John 14:6)?

(3) Is sex outside of marriage a sin?

Now, the Chau story is, in my opinion, linked to question No. 2.

To illustrate this point, let’s look at a Boston Globe piece that ran with this killer headline: “Missionary didn’t die from tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.” The author is Globe associate editor and columnist Renee Graham. Here is a crucial early thesis statement:

In the Old Testament, Proverbs 16:18 warns, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall.” Haughty pride caused John Allen Chau’s destruction and fall.

He’s the young man from Washington state who decided that what a small tribe on a remote island needed was his personally delivered taste of that ol’ time religion. What he found was an early grave.

Chau didn’t die from the tribesmen’s arrows. He was killed by his own arrogance.

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For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

For reporters looking ahead: How politics will impact the Catholic church in 2019

Elections matter. That’s the mantra you hear from both Republicans and Democrats — usually from the side that won said election — every time a piece of legislation being pushed finds legislative obstacles and serious opposition.

The recent midterm elections saw a split decision (Dems took the House, while the GOP held the Senate), leaving the nation polarized as ever heading into the what is expected to be a political slog heading into the 2020 presidential race. With the Catholic vote split down the middle again following these recent elections, it’s worth noting that Catholics, as well as the church itself, will be tested starting in January with the start of a new legislative session from Congress down to the state level.

Indeed, elections matter. Here are three storylines editors and journalists at mainstream news outlets should look out for that will impact the church in the coming year:

Clergy sex abuse: As the scandals — that mostly took place in past — continue to trickle out in the form of grand jury reports and other investigations, look for lawmakers to try and remedy the situation for victims through legislation on the state level.

With very blue New York State voting to put Democrats in control of both the state Assembly and Senate (the GOP had maintained a slight majority), look for lawmakers to pass (and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Catholic, to sign) the Child Victims Act. The Empire State isn’t alone. Other legislatures in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey and New Mexico are considering similar measures.

The New York legislation would allow victims of abuse suffered under the age of 18 to seek justice years later as adults. Removing the statute of limitations on cases involving private institutions, like the Boy Scouts and Jewish yeshivas, is at the heart of the battle.

New York law currently prevents victims from proceeding with criminal cases once they turn 23. As we know, many victims don't come forward until years later. The church has opposed past attempts at the legislation — along with the GOP — after successful lobbying efforts by Cardinal Timothy Dolan. The ability to sue the church, even many years later, could bankrupt parishes, while public schools would be immune to such penalties. Another source of contention in the legislation is the one-year “look back” window that would allow victims to bring decades-old cases to civil court.

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A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason.

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Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Looking for life-and-death updates on Asia Bibi? You need to turn to European media

Here is the religion news question that haunted me over the long Thanksgiving weekend: Why is the unfolding story of threats to Asia Bibi of Pakistan a major story in England and Europe, but not here in the United States? (Click here for recent podcast linked to this topic.)

Let me be more blunt: Are journalists on this side of the Atlantic waiting for you know who — Donald Trump — to address this tense, deadly situation in a tweet?

OK, I will be more blunt: At what point will leaders of the pro-Trump evangelical niche show up at the White House and demand that this Christian woman — cleared of blasphemy charges, but now in hiding, trapped in house arrest — be granted asylum? What if the president sent his own private plane to Pakistan to retrieve her? Maybe this would be awkward with the violent drama on the US-Mexico border?

One more blunt thought: Is part of the problem that Bibi is Catholic, not evangelical? I keep watching the headlines for evidence that Pope Francis might intervene. Right now, the main news on that front consists of fake photos circulating online claiming to show a Bibi meeting with the pope. Let me stress: The reports are fake.

For those seeking an update, here is the top of a recent Daily Mail report. Do I need to note that this outlet is considered “conservative” news?

Asia Bibi may have escaped the hangman, but her freedom comes with a heavy price. Today, when she should be reunited with her five children, she is being hunted across Pakistan, forced to scuttle under cover of darkness from one safe house to another in fear of her life.

It is a desperate situation — and one not helped by Britain which refuses to offer the mother-of-five sanctuary.

Last month the Supreme Court in Pakistan decided that Asia, 52, who spent eight years on death row, had been falsely accused of blasphemy against the Prophet Mohammed. While most of the country erupted in fury at her release, nowhere did the anger burn more fiercely than in her home village of Ittan Wali, 40 miles south-east of Lahore, where her extraordinary ordeal began. Following news of her reprieve, women took to the streets to protest, a bus was torched and children ran riot.

Until now, beyond a few sketchy details, little about Asia’s persecution has been forthcoming.

The Mail team sent reporters to Bibi’s home village and came back with plenty of harrowing details about her history and the current crisis.

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Top Aussie wedding magazine forced out of business for not featuring gay couples

Top Aussie wedding magazine forced out of business for not featuring gay couples

You’ve heard of the fire chief in Atlanta who got fired because he wrote a book containing biblical references critical of homosexuality. And the couple in Oregon who refused to bake a wedding cake for two lesbians. And the Barronelle Stutzman case in Washington state, pitting religious liberty against floral arrangements for a gay wedding.

From Down Under, there’s the Australian version of all this, sort of. A major wedding magazine is closing because it won’t feature gay unions.

Now, the owners of the magazine said nothing to bring this on. But people got suspicious because the magazine wasn’t trotting out the requisite photo shoot of a happy gay couple. Then the advertisers revolted and that was that.

I heard about the magazine in a brief Washington Post piece:

An Australian bridal magazine is shutting down after standing by a controversial decision not to feature same-sex couples.

The founders of White magazine said in a statement Saturday that they have received “a flood of judgment” since making their decision during the same-sex marriage debate and legalization in 2017.

“Instead of allowing us the space to work through our thoughts and feelings, or being willing to engage in brave conversations to really hear each other’s stories, some have just blindly demanded that we pick a side. We’re not about sides, we’re about love, patience and kindness,” Luke and Carla Burrell wrote.

The couple said that magazine staffers, advertisers and even couples who had been featured in the magazine were suddenly “the subject of online abuse despite their individual beliefs.”

“The result has been that a number of advertisers withdrew their sponsorship out of fear of being judged, or in protest. We have had to recognise the reality that White Magazine is no longer economically viable,” their statement read.

We learn the owners are Christians but little else is revealed. The magazine was started 12 years ago and was doing well until the ground shifted under its feet when same-sex marriage was legalized in Australia a year ago.

I found some links in an Anglican publication and a story in the Sidney Morning Herald that shed some light. It was one of the magazine’s own photographers who blew the whistle.

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