Reflecting on prayer rugs and presidential tweets, Islamophobia and factual religion reporting ...

Reflecting on prayer rugs and presidential tweets, Islamophobia and factual religion reporting ...

Amid all the attention on the weekend’s big brouhaha, here’s a (sort of) religion story that you might have missed.

OK, maybe story is putting it a bit too strongly. Let’s try this instead: Here’s a religion-related item that might have escaped your attention.

I’m talking about President Donald Trump’s recent tweet in which he referenced a Washington Examiner report with this headline:

Border rancher: 'We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal'

Here is the lede:

LORDSBURG, N.M. — Ranchers and farmers near the U.S.-Mexico border have been finding prayer rugs on their properties in recent months, according to one rancher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.

The mats are pieces of carpet that those of the Muslim faith kneel on as they worship.

"There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico," the rancher said. "People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

Her comments were part of a larger conversation about how many in the region believe migrants are coming to the U.S. illegally from all over the world, not just Central America.

A GetReligion reader shared the link with me and noted:

Got press because of the President's tweet. But no one asks the question, in the follow-up, “So What?’ What's wrong with prayer rugs?"

Good question.

My Googling didn’t turn up much in the way of straight reporting on the issue. But I did find several commentary and “fact check” pieces from major media delving into the question. Welcome to journalism, 21st century style!

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News in an age of rage tweets: Who needs to repent, after the Covington Catholic acid storm?

News in an age of rage tweets: Who needs to repent, after the Covington Catholic acid storm?

As this past weekend’s March for Life controversy began to escalate, I did what legions of other journalists and pundits did — I aimed a tweet at the young men of Covington Catholic High School and their leaders.

It was a rather mild tweet, as these things go. I said: “We can hope the young men repent and change. #MarchForLife holds out hope for repentance and healing.”

Later on, I also said that I thought it was time for politicians to take a lower profile at this annual pro-life event. I’m OK, with political leaders marching, but I’m worried about the high-profile speeches.

During the past day or two, lots of journalists have been taking down lots of tweets after this particular journalism train wreck.

However, I haven’t deleted mine — even after watching lots of alternative videos of this incident — for a simple reason. Based on my own life and sins, I have concluded that there is never a bad time for repentance. There may be Covington students who will want to go to Confession.

However, I’m still looking for video evidence of crucial facts — like the charge that students chanted “Build the wall!” and behaved in a way that threatened Native American activist Nathan Phillips or anyone else. I did see lots of young males acting like young males, which often means being rather rowdy (I never heard the Atlanta tomahawk-chop chant, but a few boys made gestures — while dancing around — that might be interpreted that way). Then again, there were Black Hebrew Israelites aiming bitter, obscene, homophobic chants and accusations at these students, who had gathered at a previously assigned location to meet their bus to ride home.

So what happened here?

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The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The classically liberal British weekly, The Economist, is known for its authoritative, tightly written, analysis-infused news coverage. While I sometimes disagree with its editorial conclusions, I include myself among those who find The Economist a satisfying read.

But even the news outlets I favor the most are capable of sometimes publishing pieces that leave me wondering.

Such was the case with an Economist piece from earlier this month on the spread of Christian missionaries coming from the Global South (formerly known as the Third World) to North America and Europe — a 180-degree reversal from the historical pattern.

This reverse flow says a lot about the state of global Christianity. It speaks to the real possibility of the political and cultural West entering a truly post-Christian age. And it underscores how the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America — are likely to define Christianity’s future.

But why now? Why did The Economist  bother to publish, both online and in print, a story about a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed for several decades and play it as if they’d uncovered a breaking trend?

Why would a publication as exemplary as The Economist  publish a piece that reads as if its been sitting in the magazine’s ever-green file for years?

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What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

What did Francis know? When did he know it? In Zanchetta case, can the pope answer questions?

There are few relationships in the world of mainstream religion that are more private, and often mysterious, than the bonds between a priest and a penitent who comes to Confession.

This is especially true when the priest hears the same person’s Confessions over and over for years — even taking on the role of people a believer’s “spiritual father” and guide in life.

So what happens when a priest becomes a bishop? Bishops, cardinals and even popes need to go to Confession and some may even retain ties with their “spiritual fathers” as they climb the ecclesiastical ladder.

Why do I bring this up?

I do so because of a fine detail way down in an Associated Press report that — for a moment, forget teens in MAGA hats and Twitter storms by journalists — may turn out to be a crucial turning point in the complicated story of Pope Francis and wayward bishops involved, in various ways, with sexual abuse.

We will get to the Confessional in a moment. Here is the long, but crucial AP overture:

The Vatican received information in 2015 and 2017 that an Argentine bishop close to Pope Francis had taken naked selfies, exhibited "obscene" behavior and had been accused of misconduct with seminarians, his former vicar general told The Associated Press, undermining Vatican claims that allegations of sexual abuse were only made a few months ago.

Francis accepted Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta's resignation in August 2017, after priests in the remote northern Argentine diocese of Oran complained about his authoritarian rule and a former vicar, seminary rector and another prelate provided reports to the Vatican alleging abuses of power, inappropriate behavior and sexual harassment of adult seminarians, said the former vicar, the Rev. Juan Jose Manzano.

The scandal over Zanchetta, 54, is the latest to implicate Francis as he and the Catholic hierarchy as a whole face an unprecedented crisis of confidence over their mishandling of cases of clergy sexual abuse of minors and misconduct with adults. Francis has summoned church leaders to a summit next month to chart the course forward for the universal church, but his own actions in individual cases are increasingly in the spotlight.

The pope's decision to allow Zanchetta to resign quietly, and then promote him to a new No. 2 position in one of the Vatican's most sensitive offices, has raised questions again about whether Francis turned a blind eye to the misconduct of his allies or dismissed allegations against them as ideological attacks.

Yes, “naked selfies” in a Vatican story. Were these photos sent to others or kept for — oh well, whatever, never mind.

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Lax news: Catholic teens, plus Native elder, plus Hebrew Israelites equals volatile video mess

Lax news: Catholic teens, plus Native elder, plus Hebrew Israelites equals volatile video mess

No doubt the religion story of the month involved a feisty aftermath of Friday’s March for Life in Washington, D.C. where a group of Catholic high school kids from Kentucky, a handful of Black Hebrew Israelite protestors and Native American activists met on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

Black, Native, white: A perfect storm. What all three groups did or were alleged to have done during a two-hour period provoked a shrill media response on Saturday, resulting in a social media hatefest as local officials, their school and even their diocese immediately spoke out against the boys.

The digital attacks were so bad, the kids' Catholic school had to take down its website and Facebook page on Saturday afternoon.

Then more videos surfaced on Sunday; videos that showed some appalling insults from the Black Israelite group, aimed at the young Catholics; some tone deafness on the part of some of the Natives present and a group of clueless, often confused, teen-agers who got blamed for it all.

The end result: Sloppy reporting 1, MSM: 0. The prefect end to a horrid week for journalists.

Let’s start at the beginning. Here’s what the New York Times had on Saturday:

They were Catholic high school students who came to Washington on a field trip to rally at the March for Life.

He was a Native American veteran of the Vietnam War who was there to raise awareness at the Indigenous Peoples March.

They intersected on Friday in an unsettling encounter outside the Lincoln Memorial — a throng of cheering and jeering high school boys, predominantly white and wearing “Make America Great Again” gear, surrounding a Native American elder.

One does wonder what kids in town for a pro-life protest are doing with MAGA caps on. However, all kinds of things are sold near the National Mall.

The episode was being investigated and the students could face punishment, up to and including expulsion, their school said in a statement on Saturday afternoon.

In video footage that was shared widely on social media, one boy, wearing the red hat that has become a signature of President Trump, stood directly in front of the elder, who stared impassively ahead while playing a ceremonial drum.

What was not apparent in the first video footage was that the elder had marched into this group of kids and walked right up to the boy, who was backed up against the steps of the Memorial.

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Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Religion-beat veteran draws blood while dissecting Penn grand-jury report on clerical abuse

Last weekend was complicated for me, in large part because I needed to get from East Tennessee to New York City for the first half of my Journalism Foundations seminar at The King’s College. Throw in some interesting weather and Sunday was a long day.

So what’s the point? Well, the weekend think piece that I was planning was never posted. In this case, that really matters because this Commonweal piece was an important one, featuring a byline — a New York Times scribe from my era on the religion-beat — that offered instant credibility. And the journalism hook was strong, strong, strong — leading to a Religion News Service column from Father Thomas Reese about the massive Commonweal essay.

So let’s start with the RNS summary:

“Grossly misleading, irresponsible, inaccurate, and unjust” is how former New York Times religion reporter Peter Steinfels describes last August’s Pennsylvania grand jury report in its sweeping accusation that Catholic bishops refused to protect children from sexual abuse.

The report from a grand jury impaneled by the Pennsylvania attorney general to investigate child sexual abuse in the state’s Catholic dioceses has revived the furor over the abuse scandal, causing the resignation of the archbishop of Washington, D.C., and inspiring similar investigations in other states.

Steinfels argues that it is an oversimplification to assert, as does the report, that “all” victims “were brushed aside, in every part of the state, by church leaders who preferred to protect abusers and their institutions above all.”

Writing in the Catholic journal Commonweal, Steinfels acknowledges the horror of clerical abuse and the terrible damage done to children, but he complains that no distinctions have been made in the grand jury report from diocese to diocese, or from one bishop’s tenure to another. All are tarred with the same brush.

Here’s a crucial theme: Steinfels noted that the report — which created a tsunami of ink in American media — failed to note the small number of abuse cases that were reported as having taken place AFTER the 2002 Dallas Charter, by clergy who are still in active ministries. The Dallas document radically changed how Catholic officials have dealt with abuse claims — at least those against priests.

The Commonweal piece is massive and it’s hard to know what sections to highlight. Journalists (assignment editors included, hopefully) are just going to have to dig in and read it all.

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Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Why was Karen Pence's Christian school choice worthy of all those Eye of Sauron headlines?

Let’s play a headline-writing game, inspired by the fact that one of the world’s most important newsrooms — BBC — wrote a blunt headline about You. Know. What.

Yes, this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in) takes another look at the great scandal of the week — that the wife of Vice President Mike Pence returned to her old job teaching at an evangelical Protestant school. This is the kind of small-o orthodox school that has a doctrinal code for teachers, staffers, parents and students that defends ancient Christian teachings that sex outside of marriage is a sin. We’re talking premarital sex, adultery (Hello Donald Trump), cohabitation, sexual harassment, same-sex behavior (not orientation), the whole works.

Thus, the BBC headline: “Vice-president's wife Karen Pence to teach at anti-LGBT school.”

Now, that BBC report didn’t make the common error of saying that this policy “bans” gay students, parents, teachers, etc. There are, after all, gays and lesbians, as well as people seeking treatment for gender dysphoria, who accept traditional Christian teachings on these subjects. There are some careful wordings here:

Second Lady Karen Pence, the wife of the US vice-president, will return to teaching art at a school that requires employees to oppose LGBT lifestyles.

The school in Springfield, Virginia, bars teachers from engaging in or condoning "homosexual or lesbian sexual activity" and "transgender identity". …

"I understand that the term 'marriage' has only one meaning; the uniting of one man and one woman," the document states.

My question is this: For the journalists that wrote this headline, what does “anti-LGBT” mean?

If that term is accurate in this case, would it have been accurate for BBC to have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at anti-LGBT school for Christian bigots”? Is the judgment the same?

Now that I think about it, in many news reports it certainly appeared that editors assumed that banning homosexual behavior is the same thing as banning LGBT people. If that is accurate, then why not write a headline that says, “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that bans gays”?

Then again, looking at the content of the school policies, journalists could have used this headline: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that defends Christian orthodoxy.” OK, but that doesn’t get the sex angle in there. So, let’s try this: “Vice-president's wife to teach at school that opposes sex outside of marriage.” That’s accurate. Right?

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This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

This year's March for Life media question: How hard is it to tell 1,000 people from 100,000?

Another year, another mini-storm linked to media coverage of the March for Life in Washington, D.C.

As always, the controversial issue is how to describe the size of the crowd. That’s been a hot-button topic inside the DC Beltway for several decades now (think Million Man March debates) Authorities at United States Park Police tend to turn and run (metaphorically speaking) when journalists approach to ask for crowd estimates.

March For Life organizers have long claimed — with some interesting photo evidence — that the size of this annual event tends to get played down in the media.

That is, if elite print and television newsrooms bother to cover the march at all. For more background, see this GetReligion post from 2018: “A brief history of why March for Life news causes so much heat.” And click here for the classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw focusing on media-bias issues linked to mainstream coverage of abortion.

So, what about 2019? Writing mid-afternoon, from here in New York City, let me note one bad snippet of coverage, care of USA Today, and then point to several interesting issues in a much more substantial story at The Washington Post.

I received a head’s up about the lede on an early version of the USA Today story about the march. Alas, no one took a screen shot and it appears that the wording has since change. However, several sources reported the same wording to me, with no chance for cooperation between these people. Here’s a comment from the Gateway Pundit blog:

USA Today, the first result when you search for the march in Google News, began their story by saying, “more than a thousand anti-abortion activists, including many young people bundled up against the cold weather gripping the nation’s capital, gathered at a stage on the National Mall Friday for their annual march in the long-contentious debate over abortion.”

Wait. “More than a thousand?” During a bad year — extreme weather is rather common in mid-January Washington — the March for Life crowd tops 100,000. Last year, a digital-image analysis company put the crowd at 200,000-plus. During one Barack Obama-era march, activists sent me materials — comparing images of various DC crowds — that showed a march of 500,000-plus (some claims went as high as 650,000).

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Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

Friday Five: March for Life, Protestant prodigals, dementia and faith, Tiffany Rivers' child No. 9

It’s another busy week in the world of religion reporting. Once again, I’m having trouble keeping up with all the headlines.

Today is the March for Life, and the Washington Post’s Julie Zauzmer had an interesting preview piece, exploring how political polarization is leading some to view the anti-abortion gathering as a Republican event.

Meanwhile, The Tennessean’s Holly Meyer offered insightful coverage of a Lifeway Research survey. Gannett flagship USA Today picked up the story. The key finding: Large numbers of young adults who frequently attended Protestant worship services in high school are dropping out of church. 

And with those headlines, we’re just getting started.

Look dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Religion News Service published an important, compelling three-part series on dementia and religion by national reporter Adelle M. Banks.

You really need to check it out.

Also, read my GetReligion commentary on the project.

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