Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Bitter news with roots 1,000 years old: Russian Orthodox Church cuts Istanbul ties

Anyone who has studied the history of Orthodox Christianity knows the details of this story, as well as the arguments about its signifigance.

As the first Christian millennium was drawing to a close, something big happened among the East Slavic and Finnic tribes of Europe. As always, the change involved economics, culture, military might and, last but not least, religion.

Here is a typical short take on this complicated subject:

The chronicles report that the Great Prince of Kiev sent embassies around the world to find the faith that best suited his nation and people. Travelling from nation to nation they visited Muslims and Jews at worship observing their forms of worship and pondering the way of life that each religion taught. The emissaries judged neither of these worthy religions suitable for Russ. Finally, they visited the city of Constantinople and attended Divine Liturgy in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. … They breathlessly reported back to Kiev that in Hagia Sophia they were unable to tell if they were on earth or in heaven.

Thus, Prince Vladimir was baptized In 988 and commanded his whole nation to follow his conversion to Orthodoxy.

Just in case you missed it, one of the key words in this account is “Kiev.”

In the past week or so, I have received all kinds of contacts asking for my take on mainstream news coverage of the split that has taken place between the giant Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarch based — with a tiny, persecuted flock — in Istanbul.

To be blunt, this topic is so complex that most of the Orthodox folks that I know think it would be next to impossible for journalists to handle it in a few inches of type or sound bites. Many of the Orthodox are reading the transcripts of statements by Orthodox leaders and that’s that.

However, I would like to note a few key issues that news consumers should watch for, when reading about this important story.

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Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Will the 'God gap' persist on Nov. 6? What else should religion-news pros look for?

Election Day 2018 culminates the universally proclaimed “year of the woman” in American politics. The media will be totaling up victors among the unprecedented number of female candidates and checking whether exit polls show a Donald Trump-era widening of the “gender gap” between the customary majorities of women for Democrats and men for Republicans.

Except for pondering evangelicals’ GOP fealty, the media often ignore religious factors that sometimes rival or exceed the impact of that male-female divide.

This time around, will the usual religious alignments persist? Intensify? Reporters should include this in the agenda for post-election analyses.

The related “God gap” came to the fore in 2004 when Democrat John Kerry scored 62 percent with voters who said they never attended religious services vs. churchgoers’ lopsided support for Republican George W. Bush. (Through much of U.S. history there was little difference in basic religiosity between the two major parties, while Protestants leaned Republican and Catholics Democratic.) State-by-state exit polls are unlikely to ask about that and data won’t come till later.

Since 2004, religiously unaffiliated “nones” have increased substantially in polling numbers. Pew Research says they made up fully 28 percent of Democratic voters in the 2014 midterms, outpacing all religious blocs in the party's coalition. Democratic nones neatly balance out evangelicals’ perennial Republican enthusiasm, but pundits say it’s tough for Democrats to organize them on campaign support and turnout.

Now, something new may be occurring.

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Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Walking in the maze of labyrinth wars? This USA Today Network story sits out that debate

Here is what I have learned about prayer labyrinths, during my decades on the religion beat.

Progressive Episcopalians love them, big time.

Evangelical Episcopalians hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

Progressive Catholics love them, big time.

Conservative Catholics hate them or, at the very least, worry about how they can be abused.

You may have noticed a pattern.

The arguments about labyrinths center on church history, theology, ancient myths and trends in modern “spirituality,” especially the many innovations that came to be labeled “New Age.” When writing about this topic, I have learned that it helps to focus on the doctrinal contents, and the origins, of the prayers that people are taught to recite while walking inside a labyrinth.

It’s hard to do a basic online search on this topic without hitting waves of information by those who embrace the use of labyrinths (examples here and then here) and those who reject them (examples here and then here).

This brings me to a long recent USA Today Network-Tennessee feature that ran with this headline: “Set in stone or brick, East Tennessee labyrinths are meditative walks for prayer.” This article, literally, could be used in a public-relations release about this particular labyrinth, since it contains ZERO information from critics. Here is the overture (this is long, but essential):

It's dusk on a September Tuesday as two dozen people step, silently and deliberately, around a twisting brick courtyard path at St. John's Episcopal Cathedral.

A few walk barefoot. Some carry candles or glow sticks. Most bow their heads in silent meditation or prayer as they follow the turns of St. John's brick and mortar labyrinth.

Candles and spotlights set among the garden surrounding the labyrinth cast shadows.

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Look for a story here: Catholic parents may be worrying about 'religious formation' classes

Look for a story here: Catholic parents may be worrying about 'religious formation' classes

This is the time of year when Catholic children who go to public schools also have to attend classes on Sundays.

What most Christians call “Sunday school,” Catholics refer to as “religious formation.” It is required of all Catholics — baptized children and adults who have converted or returned to the faith — in order to prepare for the receiving of sacraments such as Holy Communion and Confirmation.

Many Catholic parents have been concerned, obviously, after the revelations of this past summer involving ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the hundreds of Pennsylvania priests accused of molesting children and teens dating back decades made public in a grand jury report. The abuse of minors and sexual harassment of adults in the church has triggered plenty of doubt among the faithful regarding the church’s hierarchy.

This can impact church life in many ways. Here is one Sunday-morning angle that reporters need to think about.

The conversations in the pews and outside churches in the past few weeks have revolved around their child’s safety, revealing a crisis of faith that is very real. Should their son or daughter attend religious formation this year? Can they trust a priest or church volunteer to be alone with their child? Have any safety procedures been put into place?

There are 17,156 local parishes in the United States with an estimated 70 million Catholics. A much smaller number, however, remains active in the church. For example, only 42 percent of families send their children to religious formation, according to research in 2015 (click here for .pdf) by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University.

Indeed, the habits of American Catholics have vastly changed over the past few decades, and the events of this past summer will certainly impact the church (including attendance and donations) going forward. How much and to what extent remains to be seen. Two-thirds of Catholic millennials, for example, attend Mass only “a few times a year or less often.” That’s compared to 55 percent of pre-Vatican II Catholics, who go at least once a week, according to that same Georgetown University study.

Nonetheless, we are still talking about millions of people affected here.

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She's a Democrat, pro-life and from Missouri. Why can't The New York Times say she's Catholic?

She's a Democrat, pro-life and from Missouri. Why can't The New York Times say she's Catholic?

The New York Times floated a story with an interesting headline on Tuesday: “Is it Possible to be an Anti-Abortion Democrat? One Woman Tried to Find Out.”

It is the story of a 77-year-old politician who, figuring that she didn’t have a whole lot to lose at this point, got a plank added to the state Democratic Party platform that welcomed pro-lifers.

The response wasn’t what she expected.

We (well, mostly tmatt) have written about pro-life Dems before and how they’ve been made homeless in the past two decades. This Times report shows us that nothing’s going to change any time soon.

By the way: There’s a religion ghost in this story and it’s a pretty obvious one.

ST. LOUIS — Joan Barry has been a member of the Missouri Democratic Party for 53 years. As a state legislator, she voted regularly for workers’ rights, health care and programs for the poor.

So when the party began writing a new platform after its crushing losses in 2016, Ms. Barry, a member of its state committee, did not think it was too much to ask for a plank that welcomed people like her — Democrats who oppose abortion.

At first the party agreed and added it. Missouri’s Democratic senator, Claire McCaskill, even called Ms. Barry to praise her.

But within days, Ms. Barry began receiving angry emails and Facebook messages. People called her a dinosaur, a has-been and worse. Her children started to worry.

Missouri, the story added, used to be the nation’s bellwether state. That stopped when President Barack Obama was elected in 2008 and since then, much of the state has drifted to the right. At this point, its Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, is one of the more vulnerable officeholders up for election next month. The video atop this blog post lays out what’s at stake.

Simply put, both political parties are fighting tooth and nail for this Senate seat.

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Neutral or slanted coverage: Texas newspaper reports on pastors group's lawsuit over LGBT hiring

Neutral or slanted coverage: Texas newspaper reports on pastors group's lawsuit over LGBT hiring

Last year, I praised an Austin American-Statesman story for its fair, evenhanded coverage of religious leaders on both sides of a fight over transgender bathrooms.

That story mentioned the U.S. Pastor Council, which favored limiting the use of bathrooms in schools and government buildings to the sex listed on a person’s birth certificate.

The same group figures in a recent story by the same newspaper. But this time, reader Thomas Szyszkiewicz, the Catholic media pro who shared the link with GetReligion, questioned the American-Statesman’s lede.

Here is that lede:

A conservative Christian organization has sued the city of Austin in federal court in hopes of overturning a nondiscrimination ordinance that offers employment protection based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

The Houston-based U.S. Pastor Council argued that the ordinance is unconstitutional and invalid because it does not include a religious exemption for 25 member churches in Austin that refuse to hire gay or transgender people as employees or clergy.

Szyszkiewicz’s comments:

Am I reading too much into it or am I right in thinking that it could have been written in a more neutral way? Or that at least a second sentence or phrase could have been added to make clear that they're trying to protect their religious liberty?

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Atlanta fire chief gets $1.2 million settlement: Journalists still avoid all Bible references

Atlanta fire chief gets $1.2 million settlement: Journalists still avoid all Bible references

Once upon a time, you could count on newspapers offering readers the most complete, detailed, nuanced versions of most major news stories.

Pros on the religion beat (I plead guilty) used to look down our noses, quite frankly, at the short, blunt, even chopped-up reports offered by TV news teams — if they bothered to cover religion news at all.

Then along came the Internet and things got more complex, with more radio and television newsrooms posting solid, full-text versions of their stories on their websites. At the same time, alas, falling advertising revenues cut the hearts out of many local and regional print newsrooms — often costing them their religion-beat scribes.

The results can be painful. It doesn’t help when editors look the other way as stories veer away from news reporting, with many reports evolving into hit pieces and advocacy journalism.

There’s a story back in the news that serves as a fine example of this sad trend.

You may recall seeing stories from major news outlets back in 2015 when Atlanta fired its fire chief because of controversial content in a book he wrote. Click here for some GetReligion background on that. Now, we have an update in Atlanta-area media:

ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has settled a lawsuit with a former fire chief over his firing for a book containing passages which some saw as anti-gay.

The Atlanta City Council approved a settlement agreeing to pay fired Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million.

In 2013, Cochran wrote a book about his Christian faith titled "Who Told You That You Were Naked?" for a men's Bible study and gave it to around a dozen subordinates he said had either requested copies or shared his beliefs.

In the book, Cochran characterized homosexuality as a perversion.

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New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

New York Times: Climate change is personal in Australian pastor's drought story

Did the recent United Nations report on climate change (.pdf here) leave you alarmed but also bewildered?

If so, my bet is you're one among many. Given the situation’s described magnitude, it’s extraordinarily difficult to make sense of the report’s predicted dire consequences.

What's an ordinary citizen supposed to do about it? (Hint: Recycling your jars, can and papers isn’t enough.)

Making it more difficult, I believe, is that some key world leaders either reject the scientific consensus on climate change or prefer to ignore it in favor of shortsighted and immediate economic gains they believe are more likely to attract materially oriented voters. 

No, I’m not just leveling a dig at President Donald Trump. Click here to read a Washington Post story about other important leaders who reject the political steps necessary to stimulate broad public understanding and global action to slow climate disaster, to the degree that’s still possible.

What about journalists? 

Given the depth of climate change’s predicted and irreversible societal upheaval, is climate change the most important story of our time? Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan seems to think so.

But that still begs the question: How can this mind-boggling issue be covered in a way that makes it more comprehensible to the ordinary reader?

Allow me to suggest journalism 101’s time-honored formula: explain the macro by focusing on the micro — which is to say tell the story by highlighting one person’s experience at a time.

The New York Times did just that with this piece that ran as a sidebar to its main story on the UN report. Moreover, GetReligion readers, the piece has a strong, and valid, religion component.

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As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

As Cardinal Wuerl steps down (with a papal salute), 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick is way out of sight

So, how good was the news coverage of the very gentle fall of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, in terms of the stories published in the two elite newspapers that have been driving this story?

Well, that depends.

It appears that the crucial issue — once again — is whether the most important scandal linked to Wuerl at the the moment is (a) his role in efforts to hide the abuse of children and teens, overwhelmingly male, by clergy, (b) his ties to the career and work of ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick or (c) some combination of both, since they are often connected.

If you think the big story is still clergy sexual abuse — as suggested by everything Rome is saying these days — then reports in The New York Times and The Washington Post are just fine. However, if you think that Wuerl could/should be numbered among the cardinals who drew power from McCarrick and then protected him from public scandal, then you will see some very large and interesting holes in these reports.

But first, let’s back up. In addition to waves of coverage of the hellish 900-page Pennsylvania grand-jury report on sexual abuse, here is the lightning-strike Times headline that really kicked this summer’s Catholic chaos up several notches. I am referring to this: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.”

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, the big word in this specific piece is “seminarians” — as in reports of McCarrick’s ongoing sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians under his authority.

The sex-with-trapped-men angle vanished, for the most part, in most news coverage. Then the Post came out with a story that I took a look at right here: “Washington Post sees big McCarrick picture: Why are broken celibacy vows no big deal?“ The story’s strong thesis statement said:

The McCarrick case reveals, among other things, the unspoken contradictions between the image of priests as completely celibate and the reality of men struggling at times with their sexuality. Some experts and clerics compared priests’ celibacy vows to those of married couples who become unfaithful. In other words, physical or sexual contact between priests happens. But it’s unclear how frequently it occurs and how often it is nonconsensual.

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