A church's long-dead founder and the KKK -- New York Times article raises a question of relevance

A church's long-dead founder and the KKK -- New York Times article raises a question of relevance

How far back must journalists dig into the history of a given denomination or congregation, and how might a given founder, dead more than seven decades, be viewed in light of today's mores?

Do we really have to know everything about the earliest leaders of a denomination or movement? Just ask biographers of Martin Luther, the complicated ex-Catholic who sparked the Protestant Reformation but who also has been accused of virulent anti-Semitism.

Or how about Baptist or Presbyterian leaders in pre-Civil War America who supported, or tolerated, slavery? Shall we hold modern-day Lutherans, Baptists or Presbyterians responsible for the sins of their spiritual forefathers?

The New York Times raises the general issue in a rather lengthy profile of the Zarephath Christian Church in New Jersey's rural Somerset County.

We start out in conventional territory. This passage is long, but it's important to sense the tone of this piece right up front.

Hundreds of people each weekend drive up the hill to a newly built $12 million church surrounded by soccer fields in a New Jersey community named Zarephath. They worship by singing along with rock-ballad style prayer songs, following lyrics projected on three overhead screens. They sway and lift their arms high overhead, or say the words quietly with their eyes closed.
Drums, several guitars, keyboards and backup singers accompany the prayers. Spotlights shift from purple to blue to red as the mood builds.
“O come to the altar, the Father’s arms are open wide,” about 300 congregants sang during a recent Sunday service, in a sanctuary that resembles a warehouse-style concert hall, save for two small crosses near the stage. “Forgiveness was bought with the precious blood of Jesus Christ.”

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In Supreme Court case of baker refusing to make same-sex wedding case, THIS is the question

 In Supreme Court case of baker refusing to make same-sex wedding case, THIS is the question

Good job, New York Times.

The Times often falters in covering issues related to traditional biblical beliefs on marriage and sexuality.

But in a front-page story Sunday, the paper nailed the key question related to a Colorado baker who refuses to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

GetReligion has, of course, stressed this critical question since the U.S. Supreme Court decided to hear baker Jack Phillips' case this fall:

Is there a difference between (1) making a generic cake and selling it to anybody willing to pay for it and (2) using one's artistic talents to create a special cake celebrating an occasion such as a wedding?

After reading the Times' headline, I'll admit I was a little worried about the direction — and potential fairness — of the story:

Cake Is His ‘Art.’ So Can He Deny One to a Gay Couple?

Notice the quote marks around "art?"

I wondered if they were really necessary. And if there was any chance they were meant as scare quotes — a textual raising of the eyebrows?

Given the apparent skepticism of the headline, I was surprised by the sympathetic nature of the lede:

LAKEWOOD, Colo. — Jack Phillips bakes beautiful cakes, and it is not a stretch to call him an artist. Five years ago, in a decision that has led to a Supreme Court showdown, he refused to use his skills to make a wedding cake to celebrate a same-sex marriage, saying it would violate his Christian faith and hijack his right to express himself.
“It’s more than just a cake,” he said at his bakery one recent morning. “It’s a piece of art in so many ways.”

But then I kept reading, and the other side questioned the veracity of Phillips' "art":

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From 'Building Bridges' to 'Building a Bridge' -- About the roots of wars over Father James Martin

From 'Building Bridges' to 'Building a Bridge' -- About the roots of wars over Father James Martin

It would be hard to name a media figure in American Catholicism who is more popular than Father James Martin, in part because he is witty, candid and concise. He understands how journalists work, pays attention to deadlines and is relentlessly cooperative.

Martin has his points to make and he makes them, both with his words and with strategic silence. If conservative Catholics want to have a constructive debate with Martin, they need to take all of this into consideration. Attack this particular priest and lots of mainstream journalists will feel like you are attacking them.

This brings us to the mini-media storm surrounding the decision by leaders of Theological College -- the National Seminary at the Catholic University of America -- to rescind a speaking invitation to Martin. While he was planning to speak about themes in his book "Jesus: A Pilgrimage," this controversy centers on Martin's most recent book, "Building a Bridge: How the Catholic Church and the LGBT Community Can Enter into a Relationship of Respect, Compassion, and Sensitivity."

When you are reading news coverage of this debate there are several key points to consider.

(1) This action was taken by seminary leaders, not by the Catholic University of America. Still, CUA is the only pontifical university in the United States and has a special relationship with the U.S. Catholic bishops. As its mission statement notes, CUA was "founded and sponsored by the bishops of the country with the approval of the Holy See."

(2) Mainstream Catholic leaders have criticized Martin's book (most notably Cardinal Robert Sarah, leader of the Vatican’s liturgy office), as well as conservative groups such as the Church Militant. Were Martin's mainstream critics quoted?

(3) Martin has warmly embraced New Ways Ministry, an LGBTQ advocacy group that for decades has attacked Catholic teachings on sexuality. This is crucial because the Vatican condemned New Ways in 1999 -- specifically the work of Sister Jeannine Gramick and the late Father Robert Nugent -- with its investigation focusing on their book "Building Bridges." In 2010, the president of the U.S. bishops stressed that "New Ways Ministry has no approval or recognition from the Catholic Church. ..."

This controversy -- for seminary leaders -- was almost certainly linked to New Ways and the book "Building Bridges," as well as to Martin and his book "Building a Bridge." Last year, New Ways honored Martin with its annual "Bridge Building Award." Did that link make it into news coverage?

So what ended up in the Associated Press report on this controversy, the story seen in most American newspapers and in others around the world?

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A temple to Oscar Wilde? New Methodist shrine in New York City claims him as a saint

A temple to Oscar Wilde? New Methodist shrine in New York City claims him as a saint

Everyone has almost certainly heard of Oscar Wilde, the witty Victorian-era Irish playwright whose many affairs with other men landed him in a British jail and eventual self-exile in France, where he died in 1900 at the age of 46.

He’s been a hero to some to the point where there’s actually a United Methodist worship space dedicated to him in the symbolic heart of New York City gay culture. Tara Burton, Vox.com’s new religion writer describes it for us.

The key, as you read this feature, is to look for any sign of dissenting voices questioning its big themes. Look for conservative Methodists defending their church's teachings on sexuality, experts on Wilde's final repentance and conversion to Catholicism. That kind of thing.

Hidden in the basement of New York’s Church of the Village, a Methodist church in Greenwich Village, is an entirely unconventional worship space.
The aesthetic -- a neo-Gothic stained glass window, a devotional statue, a series of paintings depicting the life and suffering of a martyr -- is perfectly familiar. The chapel’s advertised uses -- weddings, memorial services, contemplation -- are likewise commonplace. The subject, however, is not.
At the Oscar Wilde Temple, a religiously themed installation project by McDermott & McGough, the art-world tag of artists David McDermott and Peter McGough, the central statue and the figure of worship is of Wilde himself: the 19th-century Anglo-Irish novelist and playwright whose name has become synonymous with LGBTQ liberation.
A series of paintings modeled after the traditional Christian stations of the cross -- representing different moments in Jesus’s trial and crucifixion -- tell the story of Wilde’s 1895 trial for “gross indecency” (i.e., homosexuality) and subsequent two-year imprisonment. In each panel, all of which are modeled after then-contemporary newspaper engravings of the trial, Wilde sports the gilded halo of Christian iconography.

Wilde actually was born and baptized an Anglican, then re-baptized as a Catholic thanks to his mother’s friendship with a Catholic priest.

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Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Michael Gerson sends message to senators (and journalists?) about faith, law, public life

Miichael Gerson is a graduate of one of America's best known evangelical liberal arts schools -- Wheaton College.

He has been a mainstream journalist, as well as a writer for Christian think tanks.

Gerson is, of course, best known for his work as a presidential speech writer for George W. Bush. He then moved into the role of the well-connected Washington, D.C., pundit, writing columns for the Washington Post op-ed page while holding various semi-academic research posts as a public intellectual at the Council for Foreign Relations and other groups.

It's safe to say that Gerson is capable of writing a column that is aimed at one specific DC crowd, while including information and themes that are relevant to other Beltway audiences.

Consider his Post piece on the "loud dogma" controversy that I have been writing about all week (click here for podcast) at GetReligion. The headline: "Senate Democrats show off their anti-religious bigotry."

We are, of course, talking about the recent U.S. Senate hearing in which Sen. Dianne Feinstein, and others, probed judicial nominee Amy Coney Barrett about the fine details of her traditional Catholic beliefs. Mainstream news coverage of this event was thin to nonexistent, but opinion writers of various stripes have had a field day. It's the new American journalism.

Here is my question: Gerson's column is about Democrats in the Senate. But there are places where one could switch his target to the mainstream press and his language would work just fine, if I believes that many journalists struggle to do news coverage of traditional forms of religious faith.

First, here is a key passage near the top of Gerson's column:

Barrett is an instructive test case of secular, liberal unease with earnest faith, particularly in its Catholic variety. She is, in the description of a letter signed by every full-time member of the Notre Dame Law School faculty, “a brilliant teacher and scholar, and a warm and generous colleague. She possesses in abundance all of the other qualities that shape extraordinary jurists: discipline, intellect, wisdom, impeccable temperament, and above all, fundamental decency and humanity.”
Barrett is also, not coincidentally, a serious Christian believer who has spoken like one in public.

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Has Apple become a kind of secular faith? Maybe someone should write a story about that

Has Apple become a kind of secular faith? Maybe someone should write a story about that

Let me start with a confession: There are 19 Apple devices in use, to various degrees, in my home and home office. (Music lovers need back-up iPods since they are now endangered species.) There's another iMac on my desk in New York City.

So, yes, I worked my way through an online copy of the latest Apple announcement event, the first one staged in the Steve Jobs Theater at the company's massive new Cupertino, Calif., headquarters, the one that looks like it is part high-tech monastery, part "resistance is futile" spaceship.

Some might call me an Apple believer, even though CEO Tim Cook lacks the shaman skills of Job. My last Windows machine was killed by the Sasser virus in 2003, after several expensive healing rites.

So I get the fact that Apple is, as one of my mass communications texts puts it, a "belief brand" that has reached "iconic" status for many users. I know people who feel the same way about Tesla automobiles, Birkenstock sandals, Chick-fil-A and various craft beers.

So I was intrigued when I saw that New York Times (another belief brand) headline that read: "At the Apple Keynote, Selling Us a Better Vision of Ourselves."

I thought, for a moment, that someone had finally written a hard-news report about the semi-sacred role that Apple plays for many. I was disappointed when I saw that it was a first-person "Critic's Notebook" essay by James Poniewozik. Still, this is -- as GetReligion co-founder Doug LeBlanc told me in an email -- an "elegantly written piece" that, if you read between the lines, points toward a valid topic for news coverage.

Really? Well, read that headline again. Then read this passage:

This enhancement of reality is what each video-streamed Apple event sells, more than any particular iPhone or set-top box. If advertising once told us that “Things go better with Coke,” this event -- a jewel box for Apple’s products and the people who use them -- says that “Things look better with Apple.”

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Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

Podcast thinker: Bannon attack on Catholic bishops was news, while 'loud dogma' wasn't?

It's one of the questions that non-journalists ask me all the time: What makes some events "news," while other events are not "news"?

Long ago, a caller in Charlotte wanted to know why it was news that a downtown church replaced a window, while it was not news that her church built and dedicated a new building.

Well, I explained, that window was in an Episcopal Church downtown and that sanctuary is an historic site. It was controversial to put in a modern window. Now, if there had been a zoning fight about that new megachurch sanctuary, then the newspaper would have covered it. She was not amused or convinced.

So here is a more modern news-judgment puzzle, one with a twist that combines cutting-edge technology and the old demons of media-bias studies. This puzzle was at the heart of this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in).

Too wade into this, start with the top of this interesting Crux piece that ran with this headline: "Fears of anti-Catholic bias rise on both left and right."

NEW YORK -- Of late, California Senator Diane Feinstein has come under fire for questioning judicial nominee Amy Barrett’s commitment to her Catholic faith during a senate confirmation hearing last week.
“I think in your case, professor … the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern,” declared Feinstein.
That same week, another story prompted Catholic furor when former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon said he thought the U.S. bishops had been “terrible” in their support of DACA and “They need illegal aliens to fill the churches.”
These two cases -- which happened in the span of one, shared 24-hour news cycle -- have prompted some to wonder if anti-Catholic bias on both the political left and the right in America is on the rise.

In my mind, there's no question that both of these events were worthy of coverage.

However, stop and think about it.

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Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the 'faith-based FEMA' is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Harvey, Irma

Yes, the "faith-based FEMA" is crucial to the recovery effort after disasters such as Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma. 

After deadly tornadoes struck my home state of Oklahoma in 2013, I wrote a piece for Christianity Today on how various Christian groups aided victims based on what each denomination does best.

That story noted the important role of the National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster. National VOAD, as it's known, is an umbrella group for denominational relief agencies and secular charities.

From that story, which is mostly hidden behind a paywall at this point:

National VOAD works to avoid duplication of services by FEMA and faith-based groups—a collaboration that has caused few church-state concerns because no money changes hands, said Robert Tuttle, a George Washington University professor of law and religion.

Fast-forward to this week, and I was pleased to see a national publication highlight the faith-based coordination.

The publication? USA Today.

The reporter? Washington correspondent Paul Singer. 

If that name sounds familiar, it's because we interviewed Singer just last week about why he came to the Religion News Association annual meeting in Nashville, Tenn., looking for faith and religion stories.

Singer's piece on faith groups providing the bulk of disaster recovery, in coordination with FEMA, is a good one:

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News question: Why are statues of this saint going the way of Confederate monuments?

News question: Why are statues of this saint going the way of Confederate monuments?

First, it was the defacing (or removing) of Confederate statues in the East and South.

Now it’s the defacing and vandalism of St. Junipero Serra statues in the West. This is a comparatively new wrinkle in the news -- this trend of destroying the symbols of history with which one doesn’t personally agree. I wonder if such vandalism is the new normal. This certainly raises reporting questions for journalists covering this kind of story.

For the latest on what’s happening in California, we turn to various local media on how they’ve covered the latest incidents. First, from the San Francisco Chronicle:

A bronze statue of the Roman Catholic priest Junipero Serra at the Old Santa Barbara Mission was decapitated and doused with red paint on Sunday night or early Monday morning.
The statue, on the western side of the Central Coast property near the mission's office, has since been covered with a tarp. The Santa Barbara mission has been called the "Queen of the Missions."
The statue was vandalized in a similar fashion as another Father Serra statue in Monterey last year. That figure, which was beheaded but not painted, has since been repaired. Another, in Santa Cruz, was vandalized with the word "genocide" in late 2015.

Then comes a tiny piece of background:

Serra was a Franciscan friar in the 18th century who founded nine of the state's 21 missions. He was canonized as a saint in 2015 by Pope Francis -- a decision that met criticism by those who believe Serra unfairly treated Native Americans. Some say that Serra "imposed" Christianity upon natives, forcing them convert and then work on building missions while relinquishing their traditions, customs, dress, and language in favor of Spanish ones. 

The article ends soon after that, with no quotes from anyone (the local Catholic diocese, for instance) decrying the vandalism and the assumptions that led up to it.

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