Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Massive New York Times story on Trinity Church raises good questions, but contains a big ghost

Every working day when I am teaching in New York, I walk past the historic Trinity Episcopal Church. I don’t go in that direction on Sundays, because I head over to Brooklyn for a rather different, clearly Orthodox liturgical experience.

But back to the dramatic sanctuary at Broadway and Wall Street. We are talking about some prime real estate. And if you are interested in the dollars and cents of all that, then The New York Times recently ran a long, long story that you will need to read.

Actually, this sprawling epic is three or four stories in one. You can kind of see that in the massive second line of this double-decker headline. So sit down and dig in.

The Church With the $6 Billion Portfolio

While many houses of worship are warding off developers as they struggle to hold on to their buildings, Trinity Church has become a big-time developer itself.

Frankly, I think this story should have been a series of some kind — to allow several of the valid religion-news angles to receive the news hole that they deserve. In a way, saying that is a compliment. Maybe.

For starters, you have that whole “$6 Billion Portfolio” thing, which deserves (and gets) a rather business-page approach. Then you have a perfectly valid church-state story about the tax questions circling around that vast bundle of secular and sacred real estate and development. Then you have a separate, but related, issue — New York City’s many other historic churches in which people are, often literally, struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Oh, and Trinity Wall Street is still an actual congregation that is linked to a historic, but now rapidly declining, old-line denomination.

Want to guess which of these stories received the least among of ink in this epic? #DUH

If you guessed the “church” story, you guessed right. Yes, there is an important religion “ghost” in this big religion story.

Let’s start with the overture, then I will note one or two passages that point to what could have been. To no one’s surprise, a certain Broadway musical made it into the lede:

Since the blockbuster musical “Hamilton,” tourists have been swarming Trinity Church, part of an Episcopal parish in Lower Manhattan that dates to the 17th century. Alexander Hamilton and his wife, Eliza Schuyler Hamilton, are buried in the cemetery there.

Recent years have been good to the church and the rest of its campus.

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Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Will the Pope’s Arabian adventure affect the turbulence within global Islam?

Despite the non-stop hubbub in U.S. politics that dominates the news, and the sexual molesting crisis that consumes Catholic media outlets, history’s first papal visit to the Arabian Peninsula achieved some spot coverage. But journalists now need to offer richer analysis of the longer-term significance of the February events in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

You want pertinent news angles? You want some valid follow-up stories?

Islam and Catholicism each claim the allegiance of more than one billion souls. Terrorists claiming inspiration from Islam vex the entire region, with fellow Muslims frequently among the victims of carnage, while targeted Christians have been pushed out of their faith’s ancestral heartland. In the U.S. State Department’s latest religious freedom report, six of the 10 worst nations “of particular concern” are majority Muslim (Iran, Pakistan, Sudan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan), with others on State’s “special watch” listing.

There was substance alongside the pageantry and photo ops in the UAE, a joint declaration issued by Pope Francis and Grand Imam Ahmad Al-Tayyeb, who leads venerable Al-Azhar University in Cairo. This is generally considered the chief intellectual center in Islam’s dominant Sunni branch (though long tainted by links with Egypt’s authoritarian regimes). Tayyeb is no pope but as authoritative as any figure in Sunnism. The joint statement results from years of intricate diplomacy between the Vatican and Al-Azhar.

Among the many moral evils addressed, the pope and imam called upon the world’s leaders “to stop using religions to incite hatred, violence, extremism and blind fanaticism, and to refrain from using the name of God to justify acts of murder, exile, terrorism and oppression,” adding that “God, the Almighty, has no need to be defended by anyone and does not want His name to be used to terrorize people. … Terrorism must be condemned in all its forms and expressions”

The declaration also proclaimed that “each individual enjoys the freedom of belief, thought, expression and action” and opposed forcing people “to adhere to a certain religion.” It stated that “protection of places of worship — synagogues, churches and mosques — is a duty” under both religious teachings and international law. It upheld women’s rights to education, employment and political action. And so forth, including some interesting theological commentary on God creating the various world religions.

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Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Private investigators: Confused Covington Catholics didn't shout 'build the wall' or act like racists

Let’s face it, mass-communications researchers are going to be studying the Covington Catholic High School media meltdown (click here for GetReligion files) for years to come.

I’d still like to know why the Lincoln Memorial drama was an earth-shaking event, but attempts by Native American protest drummers to invade a Mass at the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception was a “conservative” non-story. Nothing to see here. Move along.

Of course, there’s an outside shot that legal scholars may be involved in future accounts of all this, depending on how judges and, maybe, some juries feel about journalists basing wall-to-wall coverage on short, edited videos provided by activists on one side of a complex news event. In the smartphone age, do journalists have a legal obligation — in terms of making a professional attempt to check basic facts — to compare an advocacy group’s punchy, edited YouTube offering with full-length videos from others?

Before someone asks: I feel exactly the same way about covert videos (think Planned Parenthood stings) by “conservative” activists. Nobody knows anything until the full videos are available to the press.

Now we have an early Washington Post story about a a private investigation of the Covington encounter with Native American activist Nathan Phillips, as well as those angry black Hebrew Israelites. The headline is rather blunt: “Investigation finds no evidence of ‘racist or offensive statements’ by Covington Catholic students during Lincoln Memorial incident.”

Yes, I would like to know who hired the private investigators. Nevertheless, here is the overture. The key findings: No “build the wall” chants. But isolated tomahawk chops.

An investigation released Wednesday into an encounter between Covington Catholic High School students and Native American activists at the Lincoln Memorial last month largely supports the students’ accounts of the incident, which prompted immediate and widespread condemnation of the boys after a video of the encounter went viral.

A short video clip showed Nathan Phillips, playing a traditional drum, in an apparent standoff with student Nick Sandmann, who was wearing a “Make America Great Again” hat. The Diocese of Covington and Covington Catholic High School, which arranged the trip, were among those who initially condemned the boys’ actions in the video.

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What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

What do Valentine's Day, Jeff Bezos and Catholicism have in common? Time to read some 'explainers'

The primarily role of journalism is to inform. How that is done has dramatically changed over the past two decades. That time encompasses most of my adult life, where I worked as a reporter and later editor.

“Information overload” and “fake news” are both seen as major impediments to an educated population that can make sound decisions. Long gone are the days of my childhood when getting the morning paper and catching up on the day’s events by watching one of the evening network newscasts. We live in a frenetic 24-hour news cycle with a seemingly never-ending scroll of social media posts and constant chatter by “expert panels” on cable TV.

This takes me to my main point regarding journalism (specifically religion coverage) and how major news organizations can, and have, done a good job explaining faith. The journalistic form — commonly referred to in newsrooms as “the explainer” — has been one of the positives to come out of the digital age. It’s one that I increasingly have come to rely on when trying to make sense of a topic or ever-changing news developments that span days or even weeks.

Complex issues and topics have always been boiled down for ordinary readers to understand. After all, that’s what journalism is really all about. The same goes for understanding religion — and this is where journalism can be a wonderful tool to help people understands different belief systems, traditions, how they intersect with politics and how it impacts our culture and society. How journalists can create better explainers by using newspapers archives, social media, video — and yes, original reporting — is vital to the storytelling of the 21st century.

In explaining the Catholic church, for example, as it is repeatedly thrust into the media spotlight due to the clergy sex scandal, the abortion debate or any other topic means news websites have the vital responsibility of both informing and educating readers. Many of these readers are Roman Catholics, but most are not. Here’s where journalism is vital and a great way for reporters to delve into complex issues in addition to their news coverage of a given topic.

Take St. Valentine’s Day as an example.

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Gay students clashing with Christian clubs: Inside Higher Ed needs more balanced coverage

Gay students clashing with Christian clubs: Inside Higher Ed needs more balanced coverage

Usually I like the articles that Inside Higher Education comes up with, but its recent piece about a lawsuit involving the University of Iowa was so biased, I first thought it had appeared in a college newspaper.

The intro read thus: “Judge says university cannot deny recognition because of antigay rules. But decision says main flaw at Iowa is inconsistent enforcement, not the rules themselves.” As in, it’s wrong to use one standard for religious groups and another for secular causes?

Why is believing that marriage between a man and a woman — a concept supported by every major religion for thousands of years — automatically “anti-gay?” That slur tints the article, which continues:

A Christian student group at the University of Iowa can’t be stripped of its affiliation with the institution, even if its members follow a “statement of faith” that bans those in LGBTQ relationships from leadership roles, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

The decision by Judge Stephanie M. Rose has alarmed advocates for queer men and women. They are worried it would open the door for a challenge of a U.S. Supreme Court case from 2010 that allows colleges and universities to enforce anti-discrimination policies, even when student religious organizations claim those policies infringe on their beliefs. That ruling requires colleges that want to enforce such anti-bias rules to apply them to all groups equally. Judge Rose's decision, however, suggests that her ruling may be relevant only to circumstances at Iowa.

But how did the other side respond to the ruling? We’re not told up front.

The clash between Iowa officials and Business Leaders in Christ began in 2016.

A gay student had approached the then president, Hannah Thompson, about becoming vice president and, during a discussion, disclosed to her his sexuality.

Did this student just show up from out of nowhere or was he a part of this business club? We’re not told. (This Associated Press piece on the matter says he was.)

The student, whose name has never been publicly released, was denied the leadership post. Thompson said this was because of his “desire to pursue a homosexual lifestyle/relationship,” according to court documents.

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In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

Some news stories are more balanced than others.

Take, for example, the Washington Post’s coverage of a controversy over whether faith-based foster care agencies that work only with parents who share their religious beliefs should qualify for federal funding.

This is one of those quasi-balanced stories that eventually gets around to quoting both sides. But the 1,250-word piece has the feel — almost from the beginning — of leaning toward one side of the debate. That imbalance can be seen in the negative terminology used to describe those arguing for religious freedom.

This is the headline:

Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that reject LGBTQ parents

That’s opposed to more neutral wording, such as, “Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that defend doctrines on marriage.”

The Post’s lede:

President Trump made religious leaders a contentious promise at this week’s National Prayer Breakfast: Faith-based adoption agencies that won’t work with same-sex couples would still be able to get federal funding to “help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”

The president offered no details, but a plan is already in motion.

In a 2020 draft budget request that has not been made public, the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking broad authority to include faith-based foster-care and adoption groups, which reject LGBTQ parents, non-Christians and others, in the nation’s $7 billion federally funded child-welfare programs. That request follows a waiver granted last month to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries — which requires foster-care parents to affirm their faith in Jesus Christ and refused to work with a Jewish woman seeking to be a mentor — to continue to receive federal funds.

HHS’s Office of Civil Rights argues in the draft proposal that some of the country’s oldest religious agencies in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington have gone out of business because of nondiscrimination requirements that are themselves discriminatory.

Concerning that last paragraph, is it an argument or a fact that religious agencies in those places (Boston, Philadelphia and Washington) have stopped providing foster care services rather than violate tenets of their faith? A sentence or two by the Post to provide details of those closures would seem to be appropriate there.

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Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

Solid, if low key, coverage of Muslim inmate executed in Alabama -- without his imam present

It was the kind of outrageous story that grabbed the attention of GetReligion readers, as well as old-school First Amendment liberals who care deeply about protecting religious liberty.

Plenty of journalists saw the importance of this story last week, which tends to happen when a dispute ends up at the U.S. Supreme Court and creates a sharp 5-4 split among the justices.

The question, in this case, was whether journalists grasped some of the most symbolic, painful details in this execution case in Alabama. I looked at several stories and this USA Today report — “Alabama executes Muslim inmate Domineque Ray who asked for imam to be present“ — was better than the mainstream norm. Here is the overture:

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama death row inmate Domineque Ray died by lethal injection Thursday evening with his imam present in an adjoining chamber. …

Ray was executed after an 11th-hour ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court vacated a stay of execution pending a religious rights claim. Ray, a Muslim, had argued Alabama's practice of including a Christian prison chaplain in the execution chamber was in violation of the First Amendment. Ray sought to have his imam present in the death chamber at the time of his death.

Imam Yusef Maisonet, Ray's spiritual adviser, witnessed Ray's execution from a chamber which held media and prison officials. Two lawyers accompanied Maisonet.

When the curtain opened at 9:44 p.m., Ray lifted his head from the gurney, looking into the witness room. With his right hand in a fist, he extended a pointer finger.

Maisonet appeared to mirror the gesture and murmured that it was an acknowledgement of the singular God of the Islamic faith. When asked if he had any final words, Ray gave a brief faith declaration in Arabic.

OK, I will ask: What did Ray say, in Arabic? Did he speak Arabic? If not, then the odds are very good that Ray’s final words were a memorized quote from the Koran. It would have been good to have known the specifics.

That’s an important missing detail, but not the key to this story. The big issue, in this case, was that Ray was executed without a spiritual leader from his own faith at his side. USA Today managed to get that detail — along with the crucial fact that state policy only allowed a Christian chaplain in the execution room — at the top of this report. That’s where those facts belonged.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

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