Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

New on the 2020 political agenda: Will a gay mayor (finally) rally the religious left?

Our January 31 Guy Memo ho-hummed National Public Radio’s latest example  of perennial wishful thinking in U.S. media about a substantial religious left (still lower-case) emerging to counter America’s familiar Religious Right (upper-case for years now). However, the Memo observed that, “President Trump remains unusually vulnerable to resistance on religious and moral grounds,” so journalists were advised to be “alert for surprises.”

Surprise! South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg has since soared from obscurity. And his substantive interview for a March 29 Washington Post  article by Sarah Pulliam Bailey raises the prospect that the  religious left could achieve new impact by rallying behind his persona. Such a 2020 scenario could replicate 1980, when triumphant Ronald Reagan boosted the early Religious Right -- and vice versa.

Pundits quickly reinforced the Buttigieg religion angle, including Father Edward Beck on CNNKirsten Powers  in USA Today,  Andrew Sullivan of New York magazine and The Atlantic’s Emma Green.

Buttigieg has never run statewide and is merely the mayor of Indiana’s fourth-largest city (South Bend of Notre Dame fame). But the Harvard alum,  a boyish 37, has already been a Rhodes scholar at Oxford, businessman and Navy intelligence officer serving in Afghanistan. His golden tongue in rallies and TV appearances is inspiring early success.

The mayor could aid Democratic designs in the Big Ten states that are likely to (again) determine whether Donald Trump wins. The amiable Midwesterner ranks third behind East Coasters Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders in Emerson’s latest Iowa poll and well outpaces Amy Klobuchar from neighboring Minnesota. Focus on Rural America’s polling of Democrats who plan to attend the Iowa caucus puts him at 6 percent, tied with Klobuchar and another fresh face, “Beto” O’Rourke.

Journalists take note: Buttigieg is a religiously significant figure who underwent a spiritual turn at a Catholic high school and at Oxford. He became a devoted and articulate Episcopalian, came out in 2015, and married his gay partner in church last year.  That, and his social-gospel outlook, mesh with leaders and thinkers in “mainline” Protestantism’s liberal wing, alongside Catholics of similar mind.

Among Buttigieg’s numerous religious comments in the opening phase of his campaign, the most remarkable came April 7 before a packed LGBTQ Victory Fund rally. He admitted that as a youth “I would have done anything to not be gay,” said his same-sex marriage ‘has moved me closer to God,” and challenged “the Mike Pences of the world” with this: “If you’ve got a problem with who I am, your problem is not with me. Your quarrel, sir, is with my Creator.” (Notably, some media lower-cased his C.) 

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In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

In a politically polarized era (think red and blue), what does it mean to be a purple church?

A daily Google email alerts me to headlines about “evangelicals.” Most days, at least one publication delves into some version of this question: Why do most evangelicals support President Donald Trump?

I know, I know: Haven’t we figured that one out yet?

On the flip side, the supposed “rise of the religious left” in response to Trump is a favorite storyline for some journalists and talking heads.

Ho-hum. Isn’t there anything new on the religion and politics beat?

For anyone as tired as I am of the same old, same old, NPR religion and beliefs correspondent Tom Gjelten’s recent feature on a “purple church” in North Carolina was a refreshing change.

What’s a purple church? It’s a congregation that draws members from both sides of America’s vast Grand Canyon between red and blue, as Gjelten explains:

At a time when Americans are moving apart in their political and religious views, worshippers at White Memorial Presbyterian Church in Raleigh, N.C., have learned to avoid some subjects for the sake of maintaining congregational harmony.

"You wouldn't run up to a stove and touch a hot burner," says DeLana Anderson, a church deacon. "So, I'm certainly not going to do that here."

White Memorial is thriving, with about 4,000 members, while other mainline Protestant congregations are struggling. Just as impressively, it brings together worshippers with disparate political views, both red and blue.

"Raleigh is a purple city. North Carolina is a purple state," notes Christopher Edmonston, the church's senior pastor. "Many of the people who have come to church here in the last 25 years are from other parts of the country, and they bring their ideas, their politics, their viewpoints, with them. So we almost have to be purple if we're going to continue to be open and welcome to any person that wants to come."

The news peg for the NPR report is a recent Barna Group report on the communication challenges that pastors face in a divided culture.

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W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone explore America's lonely sexual wilderness

I have long lived under the callow impression that nothing makes sex less sexy than church conventions gathering for protracted debates about sex.

An April 4 essay for The Atlantic by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone proves me wrong: one thing that makes sex even less sexy than a church convention’s debate about sex is a line chart showing how often people of a given age bracket have made the two-backed beast from 1990 to 2018. 

Professor Wilcox has done important research about family life and its interaction with faith, and this essay does not diminish my respect for him.

Nevertheless, when the essay follows Kate Julian’s “Why Are Young People Having So Little Sex?” (to which Wilcox and Stone link), it leaves the impression that editors at The Atlantic have an odd fixation with this topic. Can a full-time gig as American coitus editor be in some young writer’s future?

To their credit, Wilcox and Stone acknowledge that academic writing about sex is not aflame with passion: “In the antiseptic language of two economists who study happiness, ‘sexual activity enters strongly positively in happiness equations.’”

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Nine months after Ted McCarrick sex-abuse crisis explodes, The New Yorker gives it some ink

Nine months after Ted McCarrick sex-abuse crisis explodes, The New Yorker gives it some ink

It’s been more than nine months since the explosive news about former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick hit and only now has The New Yorker done a definitive piece on it all.

We at GetReligion felt that McCarrick’s fall from grace was last year’s top religion story, along with the culpability of the Catholic Church’s highest officials in knowing about the cardinal’s sexual predilections for other men. They did nothing about it until finally it was revealed that he’d gone after boys as well.

While reporters all over the country were going into overdrive all summer reporting on l’affaire McCarrick and related stories, The New Yorker team did nothing. I still have an August 1 email to one of the editors there offering my services on that subject. Usually they’re atop the newest trend in seconds, but there was this strange silence –- and no response to my email -– on this story.

As time went on, there was a mention here and there, like this short news piece about Pope Francis that mentioned McCarrick in passing. It was written by James Carroll, a prolific author and a former Catholic seminarian.

Otherwise, radio silence on this blockbuster.

Which is beyond odd in that McCarrick was not only born in New York City, attended seminary in Yonkers and was ordained to the priesthood by Cardinal Francis Spellman, archbishop of New York, but he later became an auxiliary bishop in New York and his molestation of minors took place while at the archdiocese.

It’s curious that The New Yorker waited this long to jump on a story that was in their front yard.

So here’s their first major treatment of the Catholic sex abuse crisis that came out early this week.

They don’t have their religion reporter Eliza Griswold doing it. Instead, the assignment went to Paul Elie, a senior fellow at a Georgetown Univ. think tank. It’s written in the first person and partly taken up with how Elie, as a Catholic, feels about all this.

Is the magazine’s policy is to leave Catholic coverage to Catholic writers?

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This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

This may be a tough question: Does Rupert Murdoch have a soul? Does this question matter?

Every semester, in my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College in New York City, I dedicate a night to the role that Stephen Colbert’s Catholic faith has played in his life and career.

It’s important, of course, to spend some time looking at the humorist’s break-out show — The Colbert Report, on Comedy Central. This show was, of course, a satire focusing on the flamethrower commentary of Bill O’Reilly for Fox News work.

With Colbert, every thing on the show was upside-down and inside-out, with his blowhard conservative character making lots of liberal political points by offering over-the-top takes on some — repeat “some” — conservative stances. I argued that to understand what Colbert was doing, you had to understand O’Reilly and then turn that inside out.

Thus, I asked: What kind of conservative is, or was, O’Reilly? Students always say things like, a “right-wing one?” A “stupid one”? An “ultra-conservative one”? I’ve never had a student give the accurate answer — a Libertarian conservative.

I realize that there have been lively debates about the compatibility of Libertarianism and Catholicism. However, it’s safe to say that most Catholics reject a blend of liberal, or radically individualistic, social policies and conservative economics. Turn that inside out and you have what? Conservative morality and progressive economics?

This brings me to the massive New York Times Magazine deep-dive into the life and career of Rupert Murdoch. Here’s the humble headline on this long, long piece (150 interviews, readers are told) by Jonathan Mahler and Jim Rutenberg: “How Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Influence Remade the World.”

So the question: What kind of conservative is Murdoch? Is it possible that there is some kind of moral or even religious ghost in this story?

It opens with a rather apocalyptic scene in January, 2018. The 86-year-old press baron — on holiday with his fourth wife, Jerry Hall — has collapsed on the floor of his cabin on a yacht owned by one of his sons. Is this the end? The big question, of course, is, “Who will run the empire after the lord and master is gone?”

So here’s what’s at stake:

Few private citizens have ever been more central to the state of world affairs than the man lying in that hospital bed, awaiting his children’s arrival.

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Key question: Can American Jews vote in Israel's high-stakes balloting for prime minister?

Key question: Can American Jews vote in Israel's high-stakes balloting for prime minister?

Let me just state the obvious: After a week in Israel, I am no expert on the Jewish state or its politics.

That said, though, I did learn one interesting fact during my recent trip to the Middle East: Israel doesn’t have absentee voting.

What does that mean? Basically, except for deployed military personnel and diplomats, voting must be done in person. In other words, the people who actually live in Israel will determine who wins in Tuesday’s high-stakes election.

So while American Jews have lots of opinions, they’re not likely to have much of an impact on who is elected (or re-elected) prime minister.

In case you’re not familiar with what I’m talking about, here’s the opening of a recent Associated Press story:

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump isn’t on the ballot for Israel’s national election, yet he’s a dominant factor for many American Jews as they assess the high stakes of Tuesday’s balloting.

At its core, the election is a judgment on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has won the post four times but now faces corruption charges. In his battle for political survival, Netanyahu has aligned closely with Trump — a troubling tactic for the roughly 75% of American Jewish voters who lean Democratic.

“The world has come to understand that Netanyahu is essentially the political twin of Donald Trump,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal pro-Israel group J Street. “Unlike his previous elections, there is a much deeper antagonism toward Netanyahu because of that close affiliation between him and Trump and the Republican Party.”

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Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Journalism question: If your child was attacked by a cougar, would you 'speak in tongues'?

Now here’s a story you don’t see every day, care of USA Today.

The headline on this one is totally faith-free, but it certainly is a grabber: “Woman fights off cougar attacking her son, prying its jaws open. 'Mom instinct,' she says.”

So what is the religion angle here? A reader spotted something really interesting in this story and raised a totally logical question.

First, let’s look at this journalism mystery in context. Here’s the whole overture:

A Canadian woman rushed to save her son after a cougar attacked him last week, prying the animal's jaws off her child, according to local news reports.

How did she do it? "Mom instinct" and prayer, she told CTV News.

Chelsea Lockhart's son was playing outside the family's Vancouver Island home Friday when she heard a fence rattle in the backyard. Then came sounds of a struggle. The mother bolted outside to see her son, Zachery, 7, on the ground with a young cougar attached to his arm, the network reported. She had no time to lose.

"I had a mom instinct, right?" Lockhart said. "I just leaped on it and tried to pry its mouth open."

With her fingers fish-hooked inside the cougar's mouth, Lockhart began "praying in tongues" and "crying out to the Lord," she told CTV News. "Three sentences into me praying, it released and it ran away," she told the network.

Sounds pretty basic, right?

Well, it does if you attend a Pentecostal Protestant congregation or a mainline church — Catholic, even — that has been touched by the charismatic renewal movement during the past three or four decades.

The reader’s question: How many readers would know the meaning of the phrase “praying in tongues” without a single word of background material?

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