USA Today gets one right: Story on African-Americans found in unmarked graves notes religion

USA Today gets one right: Story on African-Americans found in unmarked graves notes religion

Reader Chris Blevins urged us to check out a USA Today story on the discovery of unmarked graves in Texas.

Blevins praised the piece as a rare case of a news outlet “allowing the religious angles to speak for themselves.”

“I know you guys at Get Religion emphasize praise for reporters when they get it right as well as justifiable criticism when they get it wrong,” Blevins noted.

He is right on both counts.

In a tweet, USA Today editor in chief Nicole Carroll linked to the “powerful story” by national reporter Monica Rhor, which opens with this compelling scene:

SUGAR LAND, Texas — Reginald Moore sank deep into silent prayer, an electric candle casting a glow on the countenance of Martin Luther King Jr. embossed on his black T-shirt.

Beside him, on the steps of Sugar Land City Hall, 50 others paused in quiet reflection. Eyes closed. Heads bent. Flames flickering in their hands.

Moore shifted from side to side, as if communicating with a spirit. He silently mouthed an invocation. He lifted his hands to heaven.

His mind returned to the moment, a few months back, when he first saw the skeletal remains of 95 African-Americans discovered at a school construction site in Fort Bend County, about 20 miles southwest of Houston.

He thought of those souls in the unmarked graves, laying forgotten for decades in the soil where a convict lease camp once stood. He thought of the free men, women and children ensnared by a system often called “slavery by another name.” How they toiled and sweated and bore the brunt of the lash, until they dropped in their tracks and were buried where they fell.

That is brilliant writing. And it certainly displays the journalist’s willingness to reflect the strong religion angle.

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Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

Tea leaves in Rome: That timely Vatican press office shake-up is causing a lot of chatter

I realize that it’s rare for me to run a think piece during the week. But let’s face it, the Paul Moses essay at Commonweal must be discussed — as journalists try to figure out what’s happening in, well, the Loggia.

We are talking about some very important tea leaves linked to the biggest religion-news story in the world, which is the Vatican’s ongoing efforts to handle interlinked scandals linked to clergy sexual abuse of some children, lots of teens and significant numbers of seminarians.

When watching the action unfold, I suggest that journalists keep asking this question: What would that great Catholic politico — Theodore “Uncle Ted” McCarrick — do in this situation?

The Commonweal headline references one of those stories that religion-beat pros just know is important, but it’s hard to explain to editors WHY it’s so important.

‘Like Cleaning a Sphinx with a Toothbrush’

Greg Burke Resigns from the Holy See Press Office

Before we get to Moses and the tea leaves, here is a typical statement of the basic news, care of the National Catholic Reporter, on the left side of Catholic media.

ROME — The director and vice-director of the Vatican's press office have resigned together, in a move that appears to indicate sharp tensions at the top of the city-state's complicated communications structure.

The resignations of American Greg Burke and Spaniard Paloma García Ovejero seemed to catch their supervisor, Italian Paolo Ruffini, by surprise. In a statement, Ruffini said he had "learned" of the decision, and called it a "free and autonomous choice." …

Burke and García's resignations were announced with a short note in the Vatican's daily bulletin Dec. 31. Pope Francis appointed Alessandro Gisotti, an Italian who had been serving as the head of social media for the communications dicastery, as new interim director of the press office.

No reasons were given for the shake-up.

Click here for a similar story on the other side of the Catholic news world, care of the Catholic News Agency. This Burke quote jumped out at me:

“I joined the Vatican in 2012. The experience has been fascinating, to say the least,” he continued.

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Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

Unfinished 2019 business in America's ongoing First Amendment wars over religious liberty

During the year-end news rush, many or most media – and The Religion Guy as well – missed a significant development in the ongoing religious liberty wars that will be playing out in 2019 and well beyond. 

 On Dec. 10, Business Leaders in Christ filed a federal lawsuit against the University of Iowa for removing the group’s on-campus recognition on grounds of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  This club for business students requires its leaders to uphold traditional Christian beliefs, including that “God’s intention for a sexual relationship is to be between a husband and wife.” See local coverage here.

These sorts of disputes across the nation are thought to be a factor in religious citizens’ support for Donald Trump’s surprise election as president. And the Iowa matter is a significant test case because the Trump Department of Justice filed in support of the club Dec. 21, in line with a 2017 religious liberty policy issued by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions. 

The DoJ’s court brief is a forthright presentation of the argument the Iowa club and other such organizations make for freedom of association, freedom of speech and “free exercise of religion” under the Constitution. Contact: Eric Treene of the Civil Rights Division, 202–514-2228 or eric.treene@usdoj.gov.

More broadly, what does the American nation believe these days regarding religious freedom?

That’s the theme of a related and also neglected story, the Nov. 29 issuance of a new “American Charter of Freedom of Religion and Conscience” (info and text here). The years-long negotiations on this text were sponsored by the Religious Freedom Institute, which evolved from a Georgetown University initiative, and Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion. 

The Religion Guy finds this document important, although at 5,000 words needlessly repetitive.  In essence, it asserts that freedom of religiously grounded thought, observance and public action, and the equal rights of conscience for non-believers, are fundamental to the American heritage and the well-being of all societies. 

Adopting lingo from federal court rulings, the charter says these freedoms are not absolute. But any “substantial burden” limiting them “must be justified by a compelling governmental interest” and implemented by “the least restrictive” means possible. The charter also endorses the separation of religion and state.

It is remarkable — and discouraging to The Guy — that basic Bill of Rights tenets even need to be reiterated in this dramatic fashion, because that tells us they are too often neglected -- or rejected.  

The charter has won a notably varied list of initial endorsers because it purposely avoids taking stands on the “sometimes bitter debates” over how to apply these principles, in particular clashes between religious traditionalists and the LGBTQ community.

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Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

Surprise! It's time for another one-sided look at the birth of a new church -- the Women Priests

It’s time for another GetReligion post about mainstream press coverage of the Women Priests (or “WomenPriests”) movement. So, all together now, let’s click off the key points that must be made.

(1) As Mollie “GetReligionista emerita” Hemingway used to say, just because someone says that he or she plays shortstop for the New York Yankees does not mean that this person plays shortstop for the world’s most famous baseball team. Only the leaders of the Yankees get to make that call.

(2) The doctrine of “apostolic succession” involves more than one bishop laying hands on someone. Ordination in ancient Christian churches requires “right doctrine” as well as “right orders.” Also, it helps to know the name of the bishop or bishops performing the alleged ordination. Be on the alert for “Old Catholic” bishops, some of whom were ordained via mail order.

(3) Consecrating a Catholic bishop requires the participation of three Catholic bishops, and the “right orders” and “right doctrine” question is relevant, once again. A pastor ordained by an alleged bishop is an alleged priest.

(4) It may be accurate to compare the apostolic succession claims of Anglicans and Lutherans to those made by Women Priest leaders (although the historic Anglican and Lutheran claims are stronger). This is evidence of a larger truth — that the Women Priests movement is a new form of liberal Protestantism.

(5) It is not enough for journalists to offer an obligatory “Catholic press officials declined to comment” paragraph on this issue. Legions of scholars, lay activists and articulate priests are available to be interviewed.

(6) Sacramental Catholic rites — valid ones, at least — are rarely held in Unitarian Universalist sanctuaries.

Once again, let me make a key point: Would your GetReligionistas praise a mainstream news story on this movement that offered a fair-minded, accurate, 50-50 debate between articulate, informed voices on both sides? You bet. Once again: If readers find a story of this kind, please send us the URL.

That brings us to yet another PR report on the Women Priests, this time care of The Louisville Courier-Journal and the Gannett wire service. The headline: “Condemned by the Vatican, women priests demand place at Catholic altar.”

Kudos for the “Condemned by the Vatican” angle in the headline, which — sort of — addresses the New York Yankees shortstop issue. Another careful wording shows up in this summary passage at the top of the long, long, very long story, which opens with — you guessed it — a rite in a Unitarian church office:

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Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

Trump is what matters: Mark Burnett/Roma Downey faith duet gets a nod in The New Yorker

During the summer of 2017, I spent some time trying to get ahold of Mark Burnett, originator of “The Apprentice,” “Survivor,” “Shark Tank” and other reality TV shows.

I was researching a story on Paula White, A key spiritual advisor to Donald Trump. She’d told me she’d held Bible studies for cast members of “The Apprentice” and I wanted to see if Burnett would talk about having her on the set.

This Hollywood player had an obvious Christian connection, as he’d been married to “Touched by an Angel” co-star Roma Downey since 2007, so I thought a few questions about Paula’s Bible studies shouldn’t faze him. But he’d been under pressure to release tapes from “The Apprentice” (so people can check to see if Trump said anything outrageous on them), so he was not commenting on anything to do with the show. Downey, by the way, is one of the most openly Christian actresses in Hollywood.

So I was intrigued to read more about his religious journey in a new story out in The New Yorker. The gist of this long tale isn’t faith by any means. Like so much news fodder these days, the key is Trump, Trump, Trump.

This feature story wanders around, asking this question: Does Burnett feel any responsibility for staging the show that propelled Trump toward the presidency? In other words, Burnett created this monster and how does he live with it?

Answer: Very well. If Burnett feels any qualms about his curious role in American history, he’s not talking about it. As good and insightful as the article is –- and I certainly learned a lot from it –- I’ll not be dwelling on most of it. But I do have something to say about the religious parts.

Downey, who grew up in a Catholic family in Northern Ireland, is deeply religious, and eventually Burnett, too, reoriented his life around Christianity. “Faith is a major part of our marriage,” Downey said, in 2013, adding, “We pray together.”

For people who had long known Burnett, it was an unexpected turn. This was a man who had ended his second marriage during a live interview with Howard Stern. … In 2008, Burnett’s longtime business partner, a lawyer named Conrad Riggs, filed a lawsuit alleging that Burnett had stiffed him to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. …

Years ago, Burnett told Esquire that religion was “a waste of time.” (Second wife) Dianne Burnett told me that when she was married to him he had no interest in faith. “But you know what? People change,” she continued.

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An Episcopal priest bolts for the Catholic Church, but will news story answer the obvious questions?

An Episcopal priest bolts for the Catholic Church, but will news story answer the obvious questions?

I really should get my click count off to a healthy start in 2019 and write something controversial. At the very least, I should criticize somebody.

Instead, I’m going to do a positive post about an interesting story by one of my favorite journalists on the Godbeat.

Happy new year, Holly Meyer!

Meyer is, as regular GetReligion readers know, the hard-working, prodigious religion writer for The Tennessean, Nashville’s daily newspaper.

The story I want to highlight on this New Year’s Day is an an example of a solid, well-done piece of reporting on the beat. It’s the kind of crucial local journalism that Meyer and Godbeat specialists like her produce day after day.

At a paper without a religion writer (and sadly, there are too many such papers), there’s a 99 percent chance this story would be missed or ignored. Fortunately, The Tennessean has Meyer to recognize the newsworthiness in a prominent local Episcopal priest leaving to become a Roman Catholic.

The lede offers the basic facts:

A conservative Episcopal priest, who is a top administrator in the Tennessee diocese, is leaving the church to become a Roman Catholic. 

Andrew Petiprin recently announced his plans to change his religious tradition and resign his post as the Episcopal diocese's canon to the ordinary. He wraps up his job on New Year's Eve, and Petiprin and his family will start 2019 in the Catholic Church. 

"I’m not really running away from the Episcopal Church, but running toward the Catholic Church," Petiprin said in an interview.  

OK, but what does it mean that Petiprin is a “conservative” Episcopal priest?

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2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

2018 Jewish Top 10 news story list spotlights anti-Semitism, as well as the genre's limitations

End of the year lists of best-of or most-important stories have several major deficiencies.

The first is that they are wholly subjective. While the top choice may be obvious to all, ranking the stories that round out such a list in order of importance is far less so. It’s here where personal preferences, and even guesses, take over.

Not too mention that such lists often do not distinguish between single headline-grabbing event stories and the trend, or ongoing story line, that the event underscores.

The second is that such lists tend to be completed before December ends because editors and readers have come to expect such lists to be published prior to the actual start of the new year. This means the mid- to late-December stories tend not to be included to meet deadlines.

Then there is another truth that journalists need to recognize: Often we miss some of the most important stories when they happen, but recognize their magnitude later.

All of this, in fact, is what has happened to one of the more reliable top-10 story lists — the one done annually by Rabbi A. James Rudin, the long-time Religion News Service columnist, former American Jewish Committee senior interreligious director and Pulitzer Prize-nominated author.

Rudin’s list pertains to the Jewish world, which includes the global Jewish diaspora and Israel and the Middle East. It's because Rudin’s list is confined to the relatively small Jewish world that he knows so well, that I consider his list one of the “more reliable” year-end features of this sort. 

This year — just as the top story in the Catholic world is obviously the ongoing priestly sex abuse scandal and hierarchical cover up — Rudin’s top Jewish story is also obvious.

It’s the increasing displays of anti-Semitism, including, of course, the shooting in Pittsburgh that ended with the deaths of 11 Jewish Sabbath worshippers, slain by a lone gunman with a  beef against Jews and, in particular, a Jewish community agency that helps settle immigrants in the U.S.

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When covering Catholic wars over sex, it's clear there are questions the Gray Lady refuses to ask

When covering Catholic wars over sex, it's clear there are questions the Gray Lady refuses to ask

You have read this story before. You can count on reading it again and again.

In recent years, American newsrooms have produced a river of stories about LGBTQ Catholics who have lost their jobs in Catholic schools, parishes or other institutions. In most cases they were fired after announcing a same-sex marriage or taking part in some other public act stating their views on sexuality.

Why did they lose their jobs? There are several possible answers that need to be explored in these stories.

(1) They had signed a doctrinal covenant of some kind (usually in a school) in which they promised to affirm Catholic doctrines or, at the very least, not to openly oppose them.

(2) They faced opposition from conservative Catholics who reject their acts linked to LGBTQ issues. The opposition could be ugly, graceful or some combination of both.

(3) They worked in actual parish ministry or administration positions in which they were expected to teach or, at the very least, affirm Catholic doctrines. This would include leadership roles in worship.

Once again, let me stress that journalists do not need to agree with Catholic doctrines in order to do fair, accurate, balanced coverage of these debates. The key is whether the coverage includes accurate information that allows readers to grasp the beliefs of articulate, honest, qualified people on both sides.

This brings us to the latest New York Times jeremiad on this topic, which ran on the front page with this headline: “He Was a Gay Man on Staff at a Catholic Parish. Then the Threats Began Coming In.” Readers will be hard-pressed to find a single sentence in this story that would be affirmed as accurate or complete by pro-Catechism Catholics. There are entire paragraphs, often without attribution, that provide the talking points of liberal Catholics who want to see their church’s doctrines modernized.

The person described in the headline is Antonio Aaron Bianco, a “gay layman in charge of managing St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church” in San Diego. Right up front, readers learn — as they should — the content of these threats, as described by Bianco. Then there is this summary statement:

Located in the heart of San Diego’s largest gay neighborhood, St. John the Evangelist is one of about 300 Catholic parishes around the country that quietly welcome gay Catholics. Although the Catholic church teaches that same-sex relationships are sinful, growing pockets of the church have accepted openly gay parishioners, staff members and even priests.

But after this summer, when the church faced renewed allegations of clergy sexual abuse, some bishops and conservative Catholic media outlets immediately blamed the crisis on homosexuality. That set off a backlash, fueling a campaign to purge the church of gay clergy members and church workers.

The key word in this passage, of course, is “welcome.”

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As simple as a cartoon: At the New Yorker, white evangelicalism = Ku Klux Klan + patriarchy

As simple as a cartoon: At the New Yorker, white evangelicalism = Ku Klux Klan + patriarchy

I know reporters do not control the headlines assigned to their piece, so I am hoping Eliza Griswold was chagrined at the click-bait headline give to her recent New Yorker piece: “Evangelicals of Color Fight Back Against the Religious Right.

Where is this happening, I wondered. And what. precisely, is the “religious right” these days?

Answer: White evangelicals. Period.

You know: The evangelical Deep State that’s part Ku Klux Klan and part white patriarchy.

In recent years, I’ve noticed how Eliza Griswold is the major go-to writer who gets to explain the religious world to New Yorker readers. The daughter of former Episcopal Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold, and more of a Christianity-and-Islam specialist, she didn’t exactly grow up in an evangelical context. I’m curious as to why she gets to define this group.

On a recent Sunday before dawn, Lisa Sharon Harper, a prominent evangelical activist, boarded a train from Washington, D.C., to New York City. Harper is forty-nine, and African-American, with a serene and self-assured manner. Although she had moved to D.C. seven and a half years ago, to work as the director of mobilizing for a Christian social-justice organization called Sojourners, she still considered New York her home. She missed its edgy energy, and was worn down by the political battles in Washington, which pitted her more and more aggressively against her fellow-evangelicals. On this frigid morning, she was on her way to Metro Hope, her old church in East Harlem. She couldn’t find anything like it in Washington, D.C. “It’s the South,” she told me. Black and Latinx-run evangelical churches committed to justice were scarce, she noted. …

With that, she dismisses a truckload of evangelical megachurch congregations in Prince George’s County in Maryland one of the richest majority black counties in the country. It wraps around the District’s eastern edge. You can’t live in Beltway land for a year or more, in you are a person who cares about church life, without hearing about the many huge, active churches in that area — black, white and mixed.

This is the first clue that this article is going to be as simplistic as a cartoon.

Harper is now the president of Freedom Road, a consulting group that she founded last year to train religious leaders on participating in social action. In August, 2014, eleven days after a police officer named Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Harper travelled to Ferguson, Missouri, on behalf of Sojourners, to help evangelical leaders mobilize their followers to support protests against police brutality. Last month, she travelled to Brazil to consult with fellow evangelicals of color, working against President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who is often compared to Donald Trump for his authoritarianism and misogynistic comments. (In an interview in 2014, Bolsonaro said that a fellow-legislator “doesn’t deserve to be raped” because “she’s very ugly.” This year, in the Brazilian election, he won an estimated seventy per cent of the evangelical vote.)

In the United States, evangelicalism has long been allied with political conservatism. But under Trump’s Presidency right-wing political rhetoric has become more openly racist and xenophobic. …

Well, that’s quite the opening.

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