Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

Friday Five: SBC abuse, Mabel Grammer's faith, power of nuance, 'fourth-trimester' abortions

You know your big investigative project has made a major splash when other news organizations immediately follow up on your original reporting.

Such is the case with the Houston Chronicle’s bombshell series on sexual abuse in Southern Baptist churches (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3).

The Washington Post and Memphis’ Commercial Appeal were among many newspapers that responded to the Houston coverage. I mention those two newspapers because I felt like their stories offered some additional insight into the independent congregational structure of the Southern Baptist Convention that perhaps even the Chronicle didn’t fully grasp.

In any case, let’s dive into the Friday Five (where we’ll see a few more links tied to the SBC):

1. Religion story of the week: Is there any doubt which story will occupy this space?

I wrote GetReligion’s initial post on the Chronicle’s big series on Southern Baptist abuse (“'Guys, you are not my opponent,' Southern Baptist official tells reporters investigating sexual abuse”).

Editor Terry Mattingly delved deeper into the autonomous nature of congregations in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination (“Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse”).

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Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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Was the New Testament's Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?

Was the New Testament's Simon Magus a true believer or a fraud?

NICHOLAS ASKS:

In the New Testament, Acts chapter 8 says that Simon Magus “believed” and then was baptized. But he was not saved. Does this teach us there’s a gap between mental assent and change of heart? Or what?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

The intriguing figure known in Acts 8 as just Simon was later designated “Simon Magus,” which helped distinguish him from the Bible’s other Simons. His name led to the sin called “simony,” the corrupt buying or selling of spiritual powers, benefits, or services.

In its earliest phase, the Christian movement was centered in Jerusalem and entirely Jewish in membership. Acts 8 depicts the new faith’s very first missionary venture, Philip’s visit to neighboring Samaria. The Samaritans were despised by Jews due to historical enmity and their quasi-Jewish religion. For instance, the Samaritans regarded only the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch or Torah) as divine Scripture, and did not believe in the future coming of the Messiah.

Philip’s preaching was accompanied by miraculous healings, which won the attention of Simon, who had “amazed the nation” with his magic performances. We’re told that Simon described himself as “somebody great” (thus that “Magus” moniker) and that people thought “the power of God” was at work through his magic.

As Samaritans began accepting Philip’s message to follow Jesus Christ, “Simon himself believed, and after being baptized he continued with Philip.” That must have caused quite a stir. But – believed what, exactly?

The apostles in Jerusalem then dispatched Peter and John to Samaria, where they laid hands on the new converts who “received the Holy Spirit.” This passage underlies the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Anglican belief that ministers must be formally set apart by the laying on of hands, in a line of “apostolic succession” that traces back to Jesus’ original founding apostles.

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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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