Evangelicals

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

Friday Five: Remembering RHE, exiting Catholics, Pakistani Christian trafficking, fact-checking satire

This is one of those weeks when I’m putting together Friday Five after not paying a whole lot of attention to the news.

So if I miss something really crucial, blame it on my “bucket list” baseball trip to see my beloved Texas Rangers play the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park is the 23rd major-league stadium where I’ve seen a game. Of course, four of those ballparks (old Atlanta, New York Mets, St. Louis and Texas) no longer exist, so I have 11 left on my bucket list. The new Rangers stadium next year will make that 12. 

OK, that’s enough for now, but feel free to tweet me at @bobbyross for more baseball talk.

In the meantime, let’s dive into the (distracted) Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Rachel Held Evans’ untimely death at age 37 was the major headline of the week.

The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the New York Times’ Elizabeth Dias, The Atlantic’s Emma Green, Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller and Slate’s Ruth Graham all covered the sad, sad news of Evans’ passing.

Here at GetReligion, Terry Mattingly wrote a post on the importance of focusing on doctrines, not political choices, in coverage of Evans’ legacy. And Julia Duin voiced her opinion that Evans’ death offered “a rare look at journalistic grief.”

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Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

We used to joke that the religion beat is sometimes known as the sex beat because of all the peccadilloes and crimes that some religious personalities find themselves in.

But yesterday’s story by Reuters about the theft of some boudoir photos supposedly commissioned by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. raises that designation to a new level.

Personally, I will never understand anyone who allows sexually intimate photos of any kind to be taken of them — in this case, apparently photos of a husband and/or wife. These things have ways of getting into the hands of people who don’t wish you well. Ask Jeff Bezos to explain this to you if you don’t already know.

I should add that Falwell has denied the Reuters report in an interview with Fox News commentator Todd Starnes. But why didn’t he tell Reuters the same thing?

Read on for my nominee of Weird Religion Story of the Week.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.’s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters.

Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.

According to a source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the person who possessed the photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells’ behalf.

Other parts of this taped conversation made the news a week ago (see above video). Why it took this long for reporters to pick up on the Falwell connection puzzles me. The mind goes in odd places trying to imagine just what is in these photos, if this story is true.

Here’s some other questions journalists might want to ask, in addition to valid questions about Jerry Jr. and a Trump lawyer: Who leaked the photos and/or stole them? Is blackmail still a crime? Is there any possibility that some kind of crime has been committed, a crime in which the Falwell family has been wronged?

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2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

2020 and the religious right: 'If Trump loses evangelical support, you can stick a fork in him'

Frank Lockwood is not your ordinary Washington, D.C., correspondent.

His career trajectory has featured a mix of political reporting and stints as religion editor for the Lexington Herald-Leader and later the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

At one point, he was known — as GetReligion’s archives attest — as the “Bible Belt Blogger.”

So when my Google News Alert for mentions of “evangelicals” turned up a Lockwood piece on President Donald Trump’s cozy relationship with evangelical leaders, I wasn’t surprised to find an insightful piece.

Lockwood, who has reported for the Democrat-Gazette from the nation’s capital since 2015, gets politics and religion. And he works for a newspaper that still strives hard to report stories such as this in an impartial, balanced manner — as in, no snark concerning Trump and the religious voters who make up such a crucial part of his base.

The Democrat-Gazette’s lede:

Evangelicals, who were crucial to President Donald Trump's election, are pleased thus far with their White House ally, prominent leaders say.

The New York Republican is counting on his Christian conservative base to help him win a second term.

"I love the evangelicals. And they love me," Trump said in February, repeating a line he had also employed during the 2016 campaign.

The strength of that relationship will matter on Election Day 2020, pollsters say.

Without a fired-up white evangelical voting base, Trump's possible pathways to a second term narrow considerably, according to pollster Robert P. Jones, CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute.

"They're a quarter of all voters and they vote 80 percent Republican, so it's a very important constituency on the Republican side of politics," said Jones, the author of The End of White Christian America.

Why report this story now?

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Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

I just did a Google Images search for the words “American Evangelicals” and it yielded — on the first screen — as many images of Vladimir Putin as of the Rev. Billy Graham. If you do the same thing on Yahoo! your images search will include several pictures of George Soros.

I don’t need to mention the number of images of Donald Trump, a lifelong member of the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do I?

The obvious question — one asked early and often at GetReligion — is this: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” But that really isn’t the question that needs to be asked, in this context. The more relevant question is this: “What does ‘evangelical’ mean to journalists in the newsrooms that really matter?”

I raise this question because of a remarkable passage in the New York Times feature about the tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans, a highly influential online scribe whose journey from the conservative side of evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism has helped shape the emerging evangelical left. The headline: “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.”

Before we look at that news story (not a commentary piece) let’s pause to ask if the word “evangelical” has content, in terms of Christian history (as opposed to modern politics).

For background see this GetReligion post: “Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books.” That points readers toward the work of historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, author of the upcoming book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” Here is a crucial passage from Kidd, in a Vox explainer piece:

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier.

The news media image of modern evangelicalism, he added, “fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.”

Now, from my perspective, the most important thing that needs to be said about the work of Rachel Held Evans is that she openly challenged the DOCTRINAL roots of evangelical Christianity, as opposed to focusing merely on politics.

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The tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans gives us a rare look at journalistic grief

The tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans gives us a rare look at journalistic grief

Death at the age of 37 is horribly short for this day and age, especially if one is a major voice for the disenchanted evangelical left.

That plus leaving behind two very young children –- the nightmare of any mother -– created an unprecedented outpouring of Twitter mourning for the simple blogger and author of religious-themed books who died on Saturday. She was Rachel Held Evans, whose family turned off her life support system after two weeks of being in a medically induced coma because of brain seizures.

When her death was imminent, some friends flew to Nashville to say goodbye. Among them was Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran pastor and the queen of liberal Christians who tweeted that she was among those friends at Evans’ bedside and that she anointed the dying woman.

What I didn’t realize about Evans is how much she connected with reporters –- especially some with degrees from Wheaton and evangelical backgrounds -– who began pouring out tributes by mid-day Saturday. This was the darkest of days on the evangelical left, which is a rising force in evangelical life — in part because of its media clout.

One of the first up was Ruth Graham’s piece in Slate:

Rachel Held Evans, an influential progressive Christian writer and speaker who cheerfully challenged American evangelical culture, died on Saturday at a hospital in Nashville, Tennessee. Evans, 37, entered the hospital in mid-April with the flu, and then had a severe allergic reaction to antibiotics, as she wrote on Twitter several weeks ago. According to her husband, Dan Evans, she then developed sustained seizures. Doctors put her in a medically induced coma, but some seizures returned when her medical team attempted to wean her from the medications that were maintaining her coma. Her condition worsened on Thursday morning, and her medical team discovered severe swelling of her brain. She died early on Saturday morning.

Judging from the speed at which the story was posted, I’m guessing the writer knew that Evans wasn’t going to recover and had an obit ready to go (which is common practice with beat reporters).

Many other stories and commentaries quickly sprang up, including from Religion News Service, the Washington Post , in NPR, the New York Times and more. This was a wave of journalistic grief.

So, who was this woman and why did so many reporters, all of whom appeared to be friends with her, weep after her death?

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Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

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Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Too late to patch things up? How to cover a schism, United Methodist Church edition

Church splits are endemic with Protestantism, and in coming years a really messy example is almost certain to afflict the large (6,951,278 members, $6.3 billion annual  income) U.S. sector of the United Methodist Church.

At issue is biblical teaching and authority, especially regarding openly gay clergy and same-sex marriage, Protestants’ most divisive issues since slavery.

As reporters and other religion-watchers will know, the UMC’s highest tribunal ruled on April 26  that church law allows much of the “Traditional Plan” that global church delegates passed in February to reinforce existing moral prohibitions. The tribunal also approved a measure that allows dissenting congregations to leave the UMC and keep their buildings and assets (text here).               

Approval of this special “exit plan” is a huge local, regional and national story. This exit plan apparently lasts until New Year’s Eve 2023 and sidesteps the “trust clause” by which the denomination claims ownership of local church properties.

Withdrawal plans must be approved by two-thirds of a congregation’s professing members, but also by a simple majority of delegates to area meetings called “annual conferences.” Judging from past struggles in other denominations, one can imagine mischief with that second requirement.

Methodists who want to loosen church discipline and give congregations local option on gay policies will mount  a last-chance effort at next year’s General Conference (mark your calendars: May 5–15, Minneapolis Convention Center), but the traditionalists should be able to continue their unbroken 48-year winning streak.

Herewith a few pointers for covering future developments. 

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