Losing my religion (or gaining a new one): This is what's surprising about conversions in America

Losing my religion (or gaining a new one): This is what's surprising about conversions in America

The best stories contain surprising twists.

I already was fascinated with "Convert Nation," an interview piece by Emma Green in The Atlantic.

But then Green served up not one but two satisfying twists — and before the story barely got started.

Let's start with the first two paragraphs:

Jane Picken didn’t know much about religion growing up. Her parents were Christians, but she was orphaned at a young age, and the person who helped raise her “utterly rejected” revealed religion. Years later, when she met Abraham Cohen at a party, they really hit it off—they were engaged within three weeks. But first, they had a religion problem to fix.
Cohen was the son of a cantor, or worship leader, at a Philadelphia synagogue. His father wasn’t comfortable with him marrying someone who wasn’t Jewish. At first, Cohen didn’t want to push his faith on his fiancée, but Jane really loved Jewish rituals like lighting Shabbat candles and eating with family on Friday nights. She decided to convert, taking the name Sarah.

That anecdotal lede seems pretty standard for an article with a subtitle pointing to one-third of Americans identifying with a religion different from the one with which they grew up.

But then the third paragraph slaps you in the face and declares, "Hey, this scenario isn't as simple as it first appeared":

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The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

The New York Times got it right: Faith had something to do with Sister Ruth Pfau's ministry

If you drew up a list of the 10 most common complaints made by GetReligion readers about mainstream religion news coverage, this would be one of them.

The complaint: Why do so many journalists ignore the role that faith plays in the lives of prominent and inspirational figures, especially when writing major profiles or, most symbolically, in their obituaries?

No, we're not just talking about sports heroes and entertainers.

In this latest case, we are talking about one of the world's most courageous Catholic nuns, the woman often called the "Mother Teresa of Pakistan." Here is the top of a major report from Al Jazeera:

Tributes are pouring in for a German nun who spent more than half a century in Pakistan battling leprosy and helping the country's most vulnerable people.
Pakistan's Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi announced in a statement that a state funeral would be held for Ruth Pfau who died on Thursday, aged 87.
"She gave new hope to innumerable people and proved through her illustrious toil that serving humanity knows no boundaries," the statement said. ...
Pfau trained as a doctor in her youth and went on to join a Catholic sisterhood. She arrived in Pakistan, where she spent the rest of her life, in 1960. She specialised in the treatment of leprosy, a disease that causes discolouration of the skin, sores, and disfigurements.

Now, some of the stories -- because of her medical training -- referred to this Catholic hero as "Dr." Ruth Pfau.

However, it took some time to find a report that included a rather important word -- "Sister." As a GetReligion reader noted: "Might this woman's faith have had something to do with her work?"

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Imported Charlottesville clergy: When a simple narrative overtakes the complex facts

Imported Charlottesville clergy: When a simple narrative overtakes the complex facts

Everyone is doing their Charlottesville post-mortems, which is why I was interested in what the New Yorker had to say about how church leaders there prepared for white supremacists.

The local clergy, and visiting clergy, played a crucial role in this story and many reporters made little or no effort to separate this group of counter-protesters from the highly confrontational, and ultimately violent, Antifa crowd that came in from outside.

That brings us to this New Yorker piece. What I didn't expect was a romanticized version of local clergy activism and a de-emphasis on the amount of outside clergy reinforcements brought in to maintain that false impression. The key facts: What clergy took part? Who didn't join the protests? Why? Where are the other voices?

The story begins at a historic black school where a few hundred of the town’s residents gather to assess exactly what happened on their streets to cause three people to die there during the recent riots.

One of the local leaders at the school was instantly recognizable to everybody: a sixty-five-year-old reverend named Alvin Edwards. When Terry McAuliffe, the governor of Virginia, came to town on Sunday, he went directly to a service at the Mt. Zion First African Baptist Church, which is Edwards’s congregation. He’s been there for the past thirty-six years, and during that time he’s also served as the city’s mayor and as a member of its school board. His years in politics have only seemed to strengthen his ties to his parishioners, and he likes to joke, with folksy charm, about his “B.C. days” -- before Christ -- when he lived in Illinois, where he grew up with plans “to make money and to be an industrial engineer.” Edwards marched with the counter-protesters over the weekend, but these days he’s best known for founding a broad coalition of local faith leaders called the Charlottesville Clergy Collective.

The article goes on to describe how the Collective got wind of an upcoming Ku Klux Klan visit and decided to hold a counter rally. Two of the major churches involved were Mt. Zion and St. Paul’s Episcopal.

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News analysis articles can provoke valuable awareness of important societal trends

News analysis articles can provoke valuable awareness of important societal trends

GetReligion emphasizes the importance of objective news reporting, and rightly so at a time when journalism’s old ethic is eroding.

Nevertheless, The Religion Guy -- with decades of experience in magazine journalism -- also insists that opinionated long-form articles by newsmakers and analysts have a place. For reporters in particular, they provoke reflection on broad societal trends amid the daily news parade.  

A buzz-worthy example about politics appeared in the “Review” section of The Wall Street Journal (behind a paywall) which is always worth perusing. An excerpt from Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla’s new book “The Once and Future Liberal” sought to convince the Democratic Party to shed identity-group fixations and return to FDR’s concept of Americans’ collective solidarity. Lilla pursues the theme in this extensive interview with Rod Dreher.

A different diagnosis comes from U.S. Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. His lede: “For a generation, the Democratic Party of which I’m a member has steadily moved away from communities of faith,” which doesn’t “reflect the views of most American voters.” In a previous Christian Century piece, the senator recalled how upset his liberal Yale Law buddies were decades ago when he began simultaneous studies at Yale Divinity School.

Coons’s latest lament appeared at theatlantic.com, which has emerged as a major interpreter of religion’s role. However, a vastly more revealing Atlantic item is the cover story in its September print issue, headlined “How America Lost Its Mind” and excerpted from the new book “Fantasyland.” (Our own tmatt at GetReligion previously noted this item).  

Author Kurt Andersen fits snugly within our cultural establishment: Harvard grad; acclaimed novelist; Hollywood scriptwriter; Off-Broadway playwright; host of National Public Radio’s Peabody Award-winning arts show; and alumnus of Random House, The New York TimesNew YorkerNew York and Time. (The Guy overlapped with Andersen at Time but didn’t work directly with him.) 

Andersen is derisive toward religious faith, thus maintaining fidelity with a Nebraska upbringing by “godless” parents

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Chris Pratt and Anna Faris announce a 'separation': Might faith play a role in this story?

Chris Pratt and Anna Faris announce a 'separation': Might faith play a role in this story?

It was one of those zippy entertainment stories produced during the PR festivals that are scheduled before the release of major motion pictures.

In this case, journalists were covering a sci-fi flick called "Passengers."

As always, superstar Jennifer Lawrence -- who grew up in mainstream, middle-class America -- was candid to the point of near-embarrassment, producing the following fodder for Tinseltown discussion. This is from Vanity Fair:

“I had my first real sex scene a couple weeks ago, and it was really bizarre,” Lawrence admitted to fellow actresses Helen Mirren and Cate Blanchett during The Hollywood Reporter’s awards-season roundtable. “It was really weird.” ...
Lawrence said she couldn’t get past the fact that she had to film a love scene with a married man.
“It was going to be my first time kissing a married man, and guilt is the worst feeling in your stomach,” Lawrence explained. “And I knew it was my job, but I couldn’t tell my stomach that. ...”

The married co-star on the other end of the kiss was, of course, rising superstar Chris Pratt.

Other than the fact that Pratt is married -- half of the Hollywood power couple with actress Anna Faris -- it also helps to know that he is one of the most outspoken evangelical Christians in Hollywood (click here for more Vanity Fair coverage). Hold that thought.

That leads us to the current explosion in tabloid America, care of People magazine, of course:

Chris Pratt has stepped back into the public eye after he announced his separation from wife Anna Faris.

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'Relig-Un' puns aside, deity downgrade for North Korea's Kim is a big story and UK media notice

'Relig-Un' puns aside, deity downgrade for North Korea's Kim is a big story and UK media notice

It's the kind of news story tailor-made for the puns and pokes of Britain's tabloid press, and The Sun, the daily redoubt of topless 'Page 3' girls, doesn't fail to deliver.

The headline says it all: "LOSING MY RELIG-UN Paranoid Kim Jong-un executing record numbers of North Koreans who no longer see him as a living GOD" [sic].

This is one of those cases in which the headline is pretty much the same as the lede, so here that is again in case you missed it:

DELUDED despot Kim Jong-un is executing growing numbers of North Koreans who no longer worship him as a living GOD.
His ruthless regime is persecuting thousands who dare to practise “other religions” within its borders, according to a shock new US government study.

It's not the poetry of a Hearstian scribe in the good old days, but it'll suffice. The "shock new US government study" is a nice touch, although someone should tell the paper that America is the U.S., and not a celebrity-gossip magazine. "Deluded despot" certainly fits the bill, however.

This is not our usual media-bash since even The Sun does "get it" here: there appears to be evidence that the literal cult-of-personality surrounding the Kim family, where the current ruler's father and grandfather were quite literally worshipped by the population or else, is showing some cracks.

A more serious London newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, published a story from which The Sun and rival tabloid the Daily Mail, both appear to have cribbed. As the Telegraph reported, citing the U.S. State Department report:

"An estimated 80,000 to 120,000 political prisoners, some imprisoned for religious reasons, were believed to be held in the political prison camp system in remote areas under horrific conditions", it adds.
Those claims were backed up by a North Korean defector who is now a member of the Seoul-based Worldwide Coalition to Stop Genocide in North Korea.

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Bye bye holy ghosts! TV station lets faith shine in report on family killed in car crash

Bye bye holy ghosts! TV station lets faith shine in report on family killed in car crash

It's a sad, sad story: a mother and her children killed in a car crash.

The tragedy had reporters camped out at the family's church, as a GetReligion reader noted in an email.

Folks from the church were interviewed, but the "spiritual guts" of what they said were edited out in most cases, the reader said.

Emphasis on "most" because there's a happy ending from a journalistic standpoint.

From the reader:

But then one interview made it to the airwaves intact, allowing the Gospel message to reach anyone who was tuned in to CBS Chicago. Every time I listen to the interview, I'm amazed that they actually broadcast the important part, but God be praised for that! 

Now, let's be clear: It's not a journalist's job to preach the Gospel. 

But it is a journalist's job to reflect accurately the essence of what a source says. That's the point here.

That's why CBS 2 in Chicago gets this reader's — and our — kudos.

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CNN on Clinton's pastor: It's Friday! But Sunday's coming! Or familiar words to that effect ...

CNN on Clinton's pastor: It's Friday! But Sunday's coming! Or familiar words to that effect ...

Once again, I feel the need to respond to some emails requesting my take on a sad, but rather interesting, feature story at CNN.

The headline is certainly a grabber, one that wouldn't be surprising at a "conservative" news outlet or two (or more). But it's news, sort of, when CNN is the prime MSM outlet that goes with this: "Hillary Clinton's pastor plagiarized portion of new book."

This is actually a strong feature story, even though -- as readers stressed -- it includes a sort of "this wasn't really all that big a deal" coda. What is looming in the background is a rarely discussed trend, which is that lots of preachers (past and present) have a tendency to quote all kinds of people without getting into the details about sources. Hold that thought, because we'll come back to it.

So back to that CNN report. Here is the overture:

(CNN) Hillary Clinton's longtime pastor plagiarized the writings of another minister in a new book scheduled to be released on Tuesday.
"Strong for a Moment Like This: The Daily Devotions of Hillary Rodham Clinton," is based on emails that the Rev. Bill Shillady, a United Methodist minister, wrote to Clinton from April 2015 through December of last year. Shillady described his emails as a way to minister to a candidate in perpetual motion.
The pastor and politician formed a spiritual bond after meeting in New York in 2002. Shillady co-officiated at Chelsea Clinton's wedding in 2010, presided over Clinton's mother's memorial service and blessed her grandchildren. Clinton is a lifelong Methodist.
Clinton appears on the cover of "Strong for a Moment Like This," and wrote a foreword for the book praising Shillady and his writings. She is scheduled to appear at an event next month in New York promoting the book. A spokesman for Clinton did not respond immediately to a request for comment.

The key, however, is that Shillady failed to credit the source for some material that ended up in what CNN called an "especially emotional devotion." The source was a March 2016 blog post by the Rev. Matthew Deuel of Mission Point Community Church in Indiana.

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That 'Patriot Prayer' man takes on the anarchists, but reporters forget to ask about God

That 'Patriot Prayer' man takes on the anarchists, but reporters forget to ask about God

Activism is already out in full force in the Pacific Northwest, where the streets are inhabited by a collection of bandana-wearing antifascists, radicals, artists, anarchists, anti-racists, gays and feminists on the left and the neo-Nazis and white supremacists on the vociferous right.

Demonstrations are a staple here and the participants are almost all under 40. For instance, this piece in the Williamette Week told how the Portland (Ore.) police stood by while militia groups, alt-right demonstrators and anarchist counter-protestors beat each other up recently.

So the presence of anyone religious in this messy drama is highly intriguing.

The Vancouver (Wash.) Columbian, whose airy newsroom is across the Columbia River from Oregon, decided to profile one of the most intriguing personalities on the streets today. This passage is very long, but it's essential. Read on.

Vancouver’s Joey Gibson always paid some attention to politics but had little practical interest in the process. Then he took to the streets outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland last summer.
There, the leader of the Patriot Prayer online community-slash-movement, whose organizing and activism has garnered national headlines after recent clashes on college campuses and the streets of Portland, was caught on camera tearing up a demonstrator’s anti-police cardboard sign. 
“Why would you destroy my property?” asked the man, who was wearing a T-shirt that read “F*** the police.”
Because Gibson, 33, was fired up. But then he felt bad for ripping up the sign. 
He handed the guy a $20 bill, and the interaction ended with a handshake. 
Now, a year later, Gibson said he is still evolving as an activist and organizer. On Facebook videos and YouTube, he preaches “Hatred is a disease.” He counts the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. among his political heroes.

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