Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Yes, Vatican 'Lettergate' story is complicated: Kudos to AP for getting the crucial details

Back when I was breaking into Godbeat work (soon after the cooling of the earth's crust), one of the first pros that I met was the late George Cornell of the Associated Press. I interviewed him for my graduate project ("The Religion Beat: Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets") at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign and then we stayed in touch.

How hard was it to be the AP's religion guy in that era? Basically, he told me, his job was to cover all the religion news on planet earth, other than the Vatican (which was its own beat).

How would you like that task? Of course, our own Richard Ostling knows all about that, since he worked for the Associated Press after his era at Time magazine. However, he had some timely assistance from pros like Bobby Ross, Jr.

The bottom line: AP religion-beat specialists have a tough row to hoe. It's one thing to do good work. It's something else to do good work on complex stories when you're facing a global news storm almost every day, while working with wire-schedule realities in terms of time and space.

With that in mind, I would like to point readers toward Nicole Winfield's hard-news report on the "Lettergate" scandal at the Vatican, a very important story with multiple layers of politics, intrigue and theology. I kept waiting for a hole and, in the end, the only thing I had second thoughts about was what pieces of the puzzle went where. Here is the overture:

VATICAN CITY (AP) -- Stung by accusations of spreading “fake news,” the Vatican ... released the complete letter by Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI about Pope Francis after coming under blistering criticism for selectively citing it in a press release and digitally manipulating a photograph of it.
The previously hidden part of the letter provides the full explanation why Benedict refused to write a commentary on a new Vatican-published compilation of books about Francis’ theological and philosophical background that was released to mark his fifth anniversary as pope.
In addition to saying he didn’t have time, Benedict noted that one of the authors involved in the project had launched “virulent,” ″anti-papist” attacks against his teaching and that of St. John Paul II. He said he was “surprised” the Vatican had chosen the theologian to be included in the 11-volume “The Theology of Pope Francis.”
“I’m certain you can understand why I’m declining,” Benedict wrote.

Whoa. So which angle of this story should get the most attention?

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New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

New York Times feature on Zoe Church of Los Angeles asks: Can churches be too hip?

I have to say, this is one clever article. I rarely run into news reporters (other than religion-beat pros) who know anything about Hillsong and Mosaic.

What follows is a New York Times piece about a Seattle pastor who moved to Los Angeles to start a new church and who’s succeeded quite well. But added to the story are little hints that at some point, this young pastor has sold out to the zeitgeist. We all know the William Ralph Inge saying: "He who marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next."

But for now, marrying what’s cool in 2018 is paying off nicely for the pastor (I guess that he was ordained by someone, although the story doesn't say) at the heart of this story. It starts like this:

LOS ANGELES -- On a strip of Wilshire Boulevard, not far from where the rapper Notorious B.I.G. was gunned down in a drive-by shooting some 20 years ago, a black plastic pool had been placed on the sidewalk outside the El Rey Theater. It was a balmy December afternoon, and the theater had been transformed into an assembly for Zoe Church, a two-and-a-half-year-old evangelical congregation that got its start in a nightclub on Sunset Boulevard.
Today was Baptism Sunday and nearly a dozen adults signed up, cheered on by a crowd of mostly 20-somethings who were gathered behind a metal barricade. Chad Veach, the 38-year-old founder of Zoe, who moved to West Los Angeles from Seattle in 2014, chewed gum as he danced to a pop gospel playlist blaring overhead. “Let’s go!” he shouted, clapping. A pair of muscular men dunked a woman in the waist-high water. She surfaced, arms pumping the air, as a friend snapped photographs that were later posted on Instagram…
Zoe -- pronounced “zo-AY, like, be-yon-SAY,” as Mr. Veach often says -- is one of the newest in a wave of youth-oriented evangelical churches making their homes here. While most are content to have a church and a campus or two, Mr. Veach is claiming nothing less than Los Angeles County and its population of 10 million. “We’ll have many locations,” he said of Zoe. He is opening a San Fernando Valley campus on Sunday and plans one more per year for the next decade or so.

Then come the mentions of Hillsong and Mosaic. Then there's the fact that this new church draws 1,600 people per Sunday and that the pastor has major connections with pop star Justin Bieber.

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'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

'God made me black on purpose': Be sure to read Politico's exceptional profile of Sen. Tim Scott

Twitter has spoken: Tim Alberta's in-depth Politico Magazine story on U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., is a must-read. 

It's a fabulous profile. 

It's a powerful look at the most prominent black elected official in America today.

Amen. Amen. Amen.

For his part, Alberta — the magazine's chief political correspondent — tweeted that Scott is as complex and fascinating a character as he has met in politics." The journalist's exceptionally well-told story reflects that.

Now, about the faith angle: From the piece's title — "God made me black" — to the revealing details shared about Scott's religious journey, Politico does a nice job with that crucial element of what makes this influential senator tick. 

A big chunk of the compelling opening scenes:

NORTH CHARLESTON, S.C. — At the end of Forest Avenue, a narrow artery slicing through blocks of muddy lots and decaying one-story homes, Tim Scott kicks at the gravel and waits. He had shared a table Saturday night with the world’s wealthiest man, Jeff Bezos, at the annual dinner of Washington’s Alfalfa Club, the ultra-exclusive gathering of the political and financial elite that began as a celebration of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s birthday. Now, it’s Monday morning and the junior senator from South Carolina is back home, in one of this challenged city’s most challenging neighborhoods, to get a haircut. The dramatic change of scenery doesn’t faze Scott, a man who straddles disparate universes with unusual ease. But he is not without powers of observation. As conspicuous as he was at the Alfalfa dinner—one of the few black faces in the Capital Hilton ballroom—I am all the more so here. “You know,” he says, leaning in, “you’re about to be like the third white dude ever inside this place.”
The Quick Service Barber Shop is the aesthetic pinnacle of Forest Avenue; its cream-colored exterior is dressed in red and blue paint announcing the proprietors and proclaiming Hebrews 12:14: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” That’s easier said than done around these parts. There was a shooting inside the shop a few months back, Scott tells me; his friends urged him to find a new barber. The senator wouldn’t hear of it. Scott got his very first haircut here a half-century ago, courtesy of Charles Swint. His son, Charles Swint Jr.—a minister who took over the family business—is the only person Scott trusts with a pair of clippers. When his white Cadillac Escalade finally pulls up, Swint Jr., a small, salt-and-pepper-haired man wearing a dark three-piece suit, jumps out and grins at Scott: “Praise the Lord!”

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New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

New York Times visits a fading abbey -- that plans to court spiritual-but-not-religious folks

Let's say that you are a reporter and you are going to write a feature story about an order of Catholic monastics.

If you were writing about an order that is growing -- let's say the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia in Nashville -- it would be very important for your piece to mention the larger context of this story. I am, of course, referring to the overall decline of Catholic monasticism and holy orders in the United States.

For example, see the opening of this classic NPR piece:

For the most part, these are grim days for Catholic nuns. Convents are closing, nuns are aging and there are relatively few new recruits. But something startling is happening in Nashville, Tenn. The Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia are seeing a boom in new young sisters: Twenty-seven joined this year and 90 entered over the past five years.
The average of new entrants here is 23. And overall, the average age of the Nashville Dominicans is 36 -- four decades younger than the average nun nationwide.

So lots of monasteries and convents are in decline -- but not all. In other words, there are two sides to this equation.

So let's flip this around. Now you are a reporter and you have been assigned to write about the decline and potential death of a Catholic monastery. That, for example, this lovely New York Times feature with this expansive double-decker headline:

The World Is Changing. This Trappist Abbey Isn’t. Can It Last?
Meet the monks of Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery in South Carolina, who are trying to maintain age-old religious traditions in a rapidly evolving world.

You can see half of the equation right there in the headline. Throughout the piece, the challenges faced at Mepkin Abbey are -- as you would expect -- spelled out in great detail.

What is missing? The story does not include the other side of the equation.

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Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

Juche: The religion reporter's way into the North Korea-U.S. nuclear summit story

OK, so I’m booking political fantasy bets on whether President Donald Trump will actually have a monumental sit down with North Korea’s equally uniquely coiffed supreme leader Kim Jong-un.

Not because I’m a gambling man, mind you, but because I’m a journalist in need of a lede graph to get rolling here, and that’s what came to mind. Forgive me, but that’s how I work this craft.

Now let’s get serious.

Despite the lower-level North Korea-United States talks in Helsinki this week, a Kim-Trump nuclear summit still feels like a long shot to me.

But if they do actually meet what might religion scribes contribute to the story beyond the standard pieces noting how Korean-American Christian missionaries and other idealistic Westerners occasionally get arrested in North Korea.

Well, you could write about how the officially atheist state actually has what some scholars identify as, speaking from a sociological point of view, a homegrown quasi-religion.

I’m speaking about Juche, North Korea’s official governing philosophy.

It's not that Juche hasn't been writing about before. It has, but only rarely. For some reason, editors (and I must cede, the public, too) seem to care more about those potentially deadly nuclear threats that both sides toss about every so often.

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Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

Trying to figure out why a tiny Christian school's financial problems are front-page news in Dallas

As we at GetReligion frequently lament, the Dallas Morning News — which once boasted a team of religion writers — no longer has anyone covering the Godbeat.

That lack of focus and expertise shows up often in the Dallas newspaper's coverage of stories with religion angles.

I can't help but think that the Morning News — in its religion-writing heyday — would have offered a much more insightful treatment of a story on today's front page.

Actually, I'm not sure I can explain exactly why this particular story is Page 1 news in a major daily.

The basic story is that a small Christian school in the Dallas area is experiencing serious financial problems.

The somewhat opinionated lede:

Carrollton Christian Academy may soon need another miracle.
After struggling financially for years, officials at the tiny, faith-based school scrambled in December to raise $400,000 they said they needed to keep the doors open through the end of the school year.
In a matter of weeks, donors were able to raise enough money to keep the school afloat, and Carrollton Christian officials now say they believe they can complete the school term.
But court records, interviews and statements from school officials over the past few months cast a wide shadow of doubt about whether that confidence is merited.
"It is our plan to move forward, finish the year, re-enroll for next year," Principal Elaine Marchant said in an email Thursday. "But we are still working on financial planning."
It seems, though, that Carrollton Christian is always walking a financial tightrope, relying on crowdsourcing and even pleas through the media to help meet its basic obligations such as payroll for its 17 teachers, rent and insurance.

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Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

Lessons from the past: Who is building a super-ministry in ruins of Jim Bakker's dream?

As a former religion-beat guy in Charlotte, and a veteran of the Jim Bakker and PTL wars of the 1980s (click here for my flashback), I was -- of course -- very interested in The Charlotte Observer's lengthy update on the status of the old Heritage USA.

Here's the totally logical headline on this solid -- but narrow -- feature: "Jim Bakker’s theme park was like a Christian Disneyland. Here’s what happened to it." What's missing? Hold that thought.

As the story notes, Heritage USA was supposed to grow into a kind of Disneyland for charismatic Christians, but things fell apart before the 2,300-acre complex reached the roller coaster ride through heaven and hell stage of development. For those in need of a refresher on why there is this:

Construction had already begun by then on two other mega-projects: A sand castle with a 10-story turret that would house the world’s largest Wendy’s restaurant, and a high-rise hotel to be called Heritage Grand Towers. When finished, reported the Heritage Herald, a weekly newspaper for tourists and those living on the PTL property, the tower’s “elegantly furnished” 500 rooms would include 100 honeymoon suites “for couples who come to Heritage USA to renew their marriages.”
Two months later, Bakker suddenly resigned amid financial and sexual scandal. His plans were scrapped, the ongoing construction halted. Today, three decades after Bakker’s dreams gave way to a nightmarish spell of bankruptcy, lawsuits and prison, many of the magnets that once drew people to Heritage USA are long gone.

The architectural corpse that gets the most attention in this piece -- fittingly enough -- is Bakker's never-finished, never-occupied 21-story tower. It continues its slow decay, while the current owners dream of expanded ministries that sound eerily familiar.

This is the crucial part of the story that I hope Observer editors return to, in depth, in the future. Why? Well, I am biased because this is the part of the story that I kept writing newsroom memos about in the early 1980s, trying to convince editors that there was a national-level story at the foundation of the Bakker scandals.

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Seattle Weekly looks at Namasgay: An attempt to corral some form of LGBTQ spirituality

Seattle Weekly looks at Namasgay: An attempt to corral some form of LGBTQ spirituality

In a blog devoted to religion news coverage, every so often I like to delve into reporting about what is happening among people who are at the edges of faith. This is the spiritual-but-not-religious crowd that longs for some transcendence in life.

I found such a story in the Seattle Weekly, an alternative publication that has a fair amount of coverage of the local gay community.

In its March 14 issue, we hear about an unsuspecting gay newcomer to the Queen City (Seattle’s nickname from 1869-1982) who goes to what he thinks is a Saturday-morning brunch, only to find only alcohol being served as a precursor to an orgy.

The newcomer, business coach Frank Macri (who is the guy dressed in pink in the front of the above photo), realizes that his companions were searching for something, albeit not in the wisest fashion.

He declined (the invite to the orgy) and returned home to ponder the opportunities for people like him in the LGBTQ community to connect. “I noticed that a lot of people feel like they need to have drugs in order to open up to someone and be vulnerable, or they need to have sex in order to feel connected to someone,” Macri said. “And I thought, what if there is a community out there of others who are mindful, compassionate, and wanting to have deeper connections with themselves and other people.”
So shortly thereafter, Macri founded Namasgay, a group for spiritually-minded LGBTQ people who are tired of only connecting with others in clubs or on dating apps. Since its creation last October, the Seattle-based group has expanded to include thousands of members in Oakland, New York, and Chicago. Members meet through a couple of events each month, including meditations, dinners, single mixers, hikes, and yoga sessions.

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About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

About that Michael Gerson think piece: Why (many) evangelicals got hooked by Donald Trump

Here is a really obscure fact about American politics that you may not have heard about: Did you know that lots of white evangelical Protestants voted for Donald Trump in 2016?

I know. It's really strange, but it must be true -- because it's in all the newspapers, week after week after week after week.

As I have noted before, it's true that there were evangelical "early adopters" who helped Trump get the 30 percent votes that he needed to gain momentum in the early primaries. As his candidacy became inevitable, many other evangelicals bit their lips and signed on -- many keeping their hard choice private. The best story to read remains this feature at Christianity Today: "Pew: Most Evangelicals Will Vote Trump, But Not For Trump."

Why has the press been so focused on white evangelicals? Trump isn't president today because lots of evangelicals -- for various reasons -- backed him. He is president because lots of blue-collar and labor Democrats voted for him in crucial states. Many of them were white Catholics. Where is the tsunami of coverage of those crucial niches in American politics?

I bring all this up -- again -- because this weekend's think piece is the must-read Michael Gerson cover story at The Atlantic that ran under this double-decker headline:

The Last Temptation
How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory

The key part of that headline is the reference to "seeking political protection." Hold that thought, because we will come back to it. Meanwhile, here is the overture:

One of the most extraordinary things about our current politics -- really, one of the most extraordinary developments of recent political history -- is the loyal adherence of religious conservatives to Donald Trump.


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