Kellerism

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It's hard to cover bitter tensions in Kiev, Moscow and Constantinople while ignoring church history

It is hard to evaluate the journalistic quality of a New York Times report about a complicated, emotional religious dispute with 1,000 years worth of history when the report — when push comes to shove — is a one-sided look at its contemporary political implications.

Once again, politics trumps church history and doctrine. Surprised?

I am referring to the clash in Ukraine between Orthodox Christians who back centuries of ecclessiastical ties between Kiev and Moscow and those who support the bid by President Petro O. Poroshenko, with the backing of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to create an independent, canonical Ukrainian church. Here’s the overture for the recent report in the Times:

MOSCOW — Ukraine took a major step on Saturday toward establishing its own, autonomous Orthodox Church, setting the stage for increased tensions with Russia by altering a centuries-old religious tradition under which the Kiev church answered to Moscow.

Some 190 bishops, priests and other church figures spent the day closeted in St. Sophia’s Cathedral in downtown Kiev to elect the newly unified Ukrainian church’s head, Metropolitan Epiphanius. He is scheduled to travel in January to Istanbul, the historical seat of the Eastern Orthodox Church, to receive an official order granting autonomy.

Hundreds of supporters of the move cheered and some wept as President Petro O. Poroshenko, who had attended the session, emerged from the cathedral to announce that Ukraine had a new church leader.

Quoting from the national poet, Taras Shevchenko, Mr. Poroshenko said that “Ukraine will no longer drink Moscow poison from the Moscow cup,” and he called on supporters to remember the day’s events as “the final acquisition of independence from Russia.”

The assumption here is, of course, that (a) the tiny, endangered church in Constantinople has the power — there is no Vatican in Orthodox polity — to create an “autocephalous” Ukrainian church that will be recognized as valid by Orthodox churches around the world. Oh, and (b), the heart of this story is a conflict between Russian President Vladimir Putin and modern Europe, representing the free world.

Political sizzle always trumps church history.

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Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

Tale of two New York Times stories: Seeking links in ultimate anti-Pope Francis conspiracy

What we have here are two interesting stories, which appear to be connected by a bridge of New York Times paranoia. It’s that latest addition to a growing canon of work attempting to connect Donald Trump to a vast right-wing Catholic conspiracy to bring down the compassionate, progressive Pope Francis.

The first story is a legitimate profile of Princess Gloria von Thurn und Taxis, whose life has taken her from the heights of glitterati fame to where she is now — a Catholic philanthropist with very conservative Catholic beliefs and a willingness to work with the rich and the poor.

The second story is — brace yourself — about Stephen K. Bannon and his ongoing efforts to promote his own power and prestige, primarily by spinning conspiracy theories that make cultural progressives go nuts. (Click here for a GetReligion post about a previous chapter in this drama and here for another.)

That leads us to the New York Times opus with this headline: “The ‘It’ ’80s Party Girl Is Now a Defender of the Catholic Faith.”

This is a story that I would think made Bannon very, very happy.

At the same time, it is a story in which Princess Gloria makes one or two comments about Bannon, but then basically shows herself to be a conservative Catholic who greatly admires the now retired Pope Benedict XVI. Yes, the does have questions about some of the actions of Pope Francis and, yes, she admires Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano. You know what that means in mainstream press circles.

Let’s tiptoe into this, looking at the key summary statement and, then, the statement of Gray Lady theology that frames this whole two-stories-in-one train wreck.

Princess Gloria — once christened “Princess TNT” for her explosive years as a hard partying, art-collecting, punk-haired aristocrat — has grown into the sun queen around which many traditionalist Roman Catholics opposed to Pope Francis orbit. Her Regensburg castle is a potential “Gladiator School” for conservative Catholics on a crusade to preserve church traditions.

Her Roman palace overlooking the ancient forum is a preferred salon for opposition cardinals, bitter bishops and populists like Stephen K. Bannon. Many of them are hoping to use the sex abuse crisis that amounts to the greatest existential threat to the church in centuries to topple the 81-year-old pontiff, who they are convinced is destroying the faith.

Now, for that blast of Times theology. The key is that the following shows, once again, that the journalism issue here is NOT an anti-religious bias. No, the key to this piece of advocacy journalism is that there are good Catholics and bad Catholics and that the Times team gets to decide who is who.

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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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Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Weekend thinking about the greatest threat to journalism and American public discourse

Republicans have always loved to complain about media bias.

I mean, who can forget hearing the soon-to-fall Vice President Spiro Agnew proclaiming: “Some newspapers are fit only to line the bottom of bird cages.” Here’s another one: “Some newspapers dispose of their garbage by printing it.”

However, the serious study of media bias issues didn’t really get rolling until Roe v. Wade, an issue that transcended mere partisan politics — even more than the fighting in Vietnam. Slanted coverage of abortion and related cultural issues (classic Los Angeles Times series here) created a link between media-bias studies and debates about the coverage of religion in the mainstream press.

I began my full-time work in journalism in the late 1970s, when all of this exploded into public debate. Here is a big chunk of my graduate project at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, as published as a 1983 cover story by The Quill:

According to a study by S. Robert Lichter of George Washington University and Stanley Rothman of Smith College, editors, producers and reporters of the nation's "prestige" media do not share the public's interest in religion.

"They're very secular," Lichter told George Cornell. The leaders of American media are "much less religious than people in general," he added.

In each "elite" news organization, Lichter and Rothman selected individuals randomly. At newspapers they interviewed reporters, columnists, department heads, bureau chiefs, editors, and executives. In broadcast newsrooms they interviewed correspondents, anchormen, producers, film editors, and news executives. A high proportion of those contacted, 76 percent, took part in the survey. In the blank on the survey labeled "religion," 50 percent of the respondents wrote the word "none." In national surveys, seventy percent of the public claims membership in a religious group. Gallup polls indicate 41 percent of Americans attend church once a week. In a report in Public Opinion, Lichter and Rothman said:

"A predominant characteristic of the media elite is its secular outlook. Exactly 50 percent eschew any religious affiliation. Another 14 percent are Jewish, and almost one in four (23 percent) was raised in a Jewish household. Only one in five identifies himself as a Protestant, and one in eight as a Cathiloc. . . . Only 8 percent go to church or synagogue weekly, and 86 percent seldom or never attend religious services."

In the Associated Press story reporting the results of the survey, Lichter said the "non-religious aspect" of the media simply showed up in the data. "We asked the standard things, and it just jumped out at us," he said.

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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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Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

Late, but still timely: Complex realities hidden in '81 percent of evangelicals' love Trump myth

So, did you ever think that American evangelicals would — in terms of their public, mass-media “face” — have an option worse than the Rev. Pat Robertson?

I know, I know. That’s a high bar to clear, or a low one — depending on your point of view.

It seems that lots of journalists — no, not ALL of them — get an idea stuck in their heads every decade or so and they start acting like some vast, complex group of Americans can be accurately represented by one person (Robertson, for example) or even one statistic (81 percent of white evangelicals voted for You Know Who).

Here’s the irony: It’s kind of like what Donald Trump has done with America’s journalists, taking biases and inaccuracies that can be found in a few cases and turning them into a simplistic vision of the whole. Thus, Trump often stomps on the First Amendment-protected role that journalism is supposed to play in American public discourse.

Oh, I do realize that Robertson is still out there, cranking out soundbites (like this).

But that’s really not the topic we covered during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in). The goal was to discuss WHY some journalists seem so anxious to play this game. With that in mind, let’s flash back to a journalism think piece that I wrote in 2005 for the Poynter Institute. The headline: “Excommunicating Pat Robertson.” Here’s the overture:

Let's pretend it is Oct. 1, 2005.

After a long, long September of storms, Hurricane Wilma misses the Keys and veers into the Gulf of Mexico. It heads straight for Louisiana.

After a long, long day in the newsroom, you sit on the couch flipping from one cable news channel to another. Then you see a familiar face in an MSNBC tease and hear, "We'll be back, live, with the Rev. Pat Robertson, who says that this new hurricane is more evidence that God is angry at New Orleans because ..."

Pause for a minute. When you hear these words do you experience (a) an acidic surge of joy because you are 99.9 percent sure that you know what Robertson is going to say, or (b) a sense of sorrow for precisely the same reason?

If you answered (a), then I would bet the moon and the stars that you are someone who doesn't think highly of Christian conservatives and their beliefs. If you answered (b), you are probably one of those Christians.

In other words, we have reached the point where some journalists are happy to see Robertson's face on television screens, because every time he opens his mouth he reinforces their stereotype of a conservative Christian.

Wow. The more things change, the more that they stay the same.

So, GetReligion readers, how do you feel when a news organization hits you with yet another reference to the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election?

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Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

Faith struggles of young D.C. Catholic women? Washington Post says it's all 'politics'

For millions of Roman Catholics, the world began changing in the 1980s — with waves of headlines about clergy sexual abuse cases that eventually led to reporter Jason Berry’s cathartic 1992 book “Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children.”

The National Catholic Reporter wrote article after article about the scandals. A crucial moment came in 1985, when The New York Times published a brutal article about the Rev. Gilbert Gauthe, who admitted that he abused dozens of children in parishes in rural, southwest Louisiana. HBO eventually made a movie — “Judgement” — about the Gauthe case.

Mainstream news reporters, including me, covered stories linked to the emerging scandal all through the 1980s, as the U.S. Catholic bishops met behind closed doors to discuss how to solve this hellish puzzle.

As a series of documentaries by Minnesota Public Radio stated, “It all began in Lafayette.”

I offered this brief flash back as context for an important, but stunningly faith-free, Washington Post “social issues” feature that ran under this headline: “What it’s like to be a young Catholic in a new era of clergy sex abuse scandals.” Here is the features crucial summary material:

In an era when the church is frequently perceived as behind the times on matters of importance to them, some young Catholics have responded to the latest setbacks by pulling further away from the beleaguered institution, while others have drawn closer.

This generation of Catholic college students has grown up amid the stain of the sexual abuse crisis, which was first exposed by The Boston Globe in 2002 and has since implicated clergy around the world. Most can’t even remember a pre-scandal church.

At the same time, they and young people generally are a critical demographic for the future of Catholicism, which has an aging parishioner base and has struggled to attract and retain young people.

Catholicism has seen the largest decline in participation among major religious groups, according to a report in 2016 from the Public Religion Research Institute.

For starters, the Post does need to run a correction stating that the first national exposure of the clergy sexual abuse scandal did not come in 2002 in the Spotlight work published by The Boston Globe. The Globe work was stunning, and crucial, but it is simply inaccurate to ignore the nearly two decades of work that came before that.

However, the heart of this article consists of interviews with young Catholic women in Washington, D.C., along with experts who describe how their views illustrate the faith impact of the ongoing scandals. There are, apparently, no young Catholic men inside the Beltway.

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Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Same-sex dating on evangelical campus: Are there two sides of this hot-button story?

Thirty years ago, I asked a gay theologian in Denver a blunt question, while we were thinking out loud about the distant possibility that gay marriage would become a reality.

The question: Did he know anyone in the gay theological world — this man was well connected — who thought that gay women and men should remain virgins until taking vows and forming a monogamous, lifelong relationship with a partner?

After laughing out loud, he said, “No.” The debates, he said, would be about the meaning of the word “monogamous”? Few gay men, in particular, would accept what he called the “twin rocking chairs into the future” approach to absolute sexual fidelity.

About 15 years ago, I asked another gay activist if LGBTQ people lobbying for change in Christian higher education had considered attacking a very specific fault line: If Christian college leaders asked students to promise not to have sex outside of marriage, what would be the doctrinal grounds for banning gay dating?

He said: That’s a very interesting point. That’s going to be an issue someday.

Put those two questions together and you get the tensions on the campus of Azusa Pacific University, where administrators briefly approved a policy stating that gay romance — short of intercourse — was as welcome on the campus as straight. The trustees quickly nixed that revolutionary change.

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I talked about the APU furor, focusing on a particularly lousy, one-sided news report on the subject that ran in The Los Angeles Times — a newspaper once known for its quality religion-news work.

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Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

Azusa Pacific, doctrine and sex, again: Los Angeles Times acts as cheerleader for one side

After 15 years of work here at GetReligion, it’s easy to describe the question that I hear more than any other when I get into discussions with readers of the blog.

The question: Do you ever get frustrated having to write posts about the same issues in mainstream news, over and over, criticizing the same errors — noting the same holes, the same biases, the same “religion ghosts”?

The answer: Yes, it’s frustrating. However, when we see problems over and over, that means we have to write about them. The repetition shows that the problem is real and is not going away.

That brings me to a new Los Angeles Times story about the ongoing LGBTQ debates at Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical college in greater LA. Our own Julia Duin wrote about some of the early coverage in post the other day. Please check that out.

The new Times piece is the same song, all over again. Frankly, this is one of the most slanted stories I have seen in a mainstream publication in a long time. So here we go — again.

The liberal evangelical side of this equation is covered in depth, as it should be. But if you are looking for student voices, faculty voices, trustee voices on the traditional side of this doctrinal debate, you need to look somewhere else. Let’s walk through the overture of the piece.

On a recent fall day, a group of protesters gathered in a university courtyard, many holding rainbow flags. About 100 students and faculty members were fighting for LGBTQ rights on campus.

With a crowd this size, it might have been possible to get a specific figure. However, let me note that APU has about 5,600 students.

This does not mean that a small crowd of this kind is not important. It takes guts to protest your own school when it is a private school that, when you enrolled, you were told upfront the doctrinal standards that would frame campus life. We are talking about a voluntary association, a private school that no one has to attend. People choose to study there, work there, teach there.

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