Politico should know better, part II: Dr. Ben Carson God-talk piece leaves out his church

It was 92 years ago that a manufacturer of record players first trademarked the phrase "the gift that keeps on giving." 

Perhaps the folks at Politico could consider its use any time they publish stories about God and politics.

Last week, it was a ham-handed attempt at analyzing President Donald J. Trump's "God-talk" as POTUS. And its equally poor take on supposed links between Trump and Russia via the Chabad Lubavitch organization, as noted by my colleague Ira Rifkin.

This week, Dr. Ben Carson is in the crosshairs for daring to mention the Deity when talking about government work linked to his new line of work -- housing:

God is Ben Carson’s favorite subject. Brain surgery is a close second. Housing is somewhere further down the list.
“I was told that as a government leader, I really shouldn't talk about God. But I have to tell you, it's part of who I am,” Carson said last month, in one of his first speeches as Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Less than two months into the job, Carson still holds forth on God and neurosurgery, but his views on housing policy remain largely a mystery. While he's making good on a promised listening tour to learn about the $48 billion agency he now leads, he's done little public speaking about the urgent issue at hand -- a lack of affordable housing. ...
Carson told POLITICO that policy proposals are in the works, but in public appearances the one-time presidential candidate is sticking to his stump-speech staples. He prescribes “godly principles” as a cure for the country’s political division and praises housing advocates for “putting God’s love into action.”

Now, from a political/policy standpoint, I can understand why Carson's emphasis on "godly principles" and "putting God's love into action" might seem a bit, well, off-putting. We're more accustomed to hearing about bloc grants, subsidies, expansion plans, or reasons why there can't be any of those.

Politico reporter Lorraine Woellert -- who in the 1990s pulled a four-year stint as a reporter at the faith-friendly Washington Times not long after I started there as a contributing tech columnist -- gets to the heart of the matter. Carson's God-talk is failing to connect with those in the housing activist community who want to see concrete plans and not platitudes:

But lately, [Carson's] up-by-the-bootstraps message has been falling flat with anti-poverty audiences.
“It’s a great story, but it’s a dangerous message because not everybody can pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” said Maria Foscarinis, executive director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty. “Nobody does that, including Secretary Carson. He had a lot of support — his mother, his family, his faith. He had a whole context of support.”

Here's the journalism problem I have with this story: Nowhere does Woellert bother to mention which faith inspired Ben Carson's God-talk. Yes, it's understood he's a Christian, but isn't there more to the story? Perhaps a few facts and specifics? You know, like God is in the details?

I ask because Carson is not the only politician these days talking about God and poverty. In San Antonio, Texas, Mayor Ivy Taylor was quite explicit about her view that poor spiritual relationships are in part a cause of multi-generational poverty, according to a report in the Huffington Post:

Speaking at a candidates’ forum early this month, Mayor Ivy Taylor was asked what she thought were the “deepest systemic causes of generational poverty” in the city. In a video posted online by NOWCastSA, she said: 
“Since you’re with the Christian Coalition, I’ll go ahead and put it out there that to me, it’s broken people. People not being in a relationship with their creator and therefore not being in a good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society.”
Taylor said that’s “not something I work on” as mayor, apparently referring to the religious elements of her answer, but added that from a policy angle she attempted to solve the issue through education. Taylor also mentioned addressing teen pregnancies.  

As you might imagine, the HuffPo writer wasn't all that thrilled about Taylor's comments, and some of her constituents may not be so sanguine about them, either. But at least they identified Taylor as “a devout Baptist whose Christian faith is integral to everything she does,” citing a San Antonio Express-News column buried behind a paywall.

Back to Politico: We get no indication of where Carson attends church each week.

I, of course, happen to know the answer because, as regular readers here might recall, I share Carson's particular affiliation: He's a Seventh-day Adventist, as am I. (Truth be told, while I'm nowhere near the "brain surgeon" category, I did spend 11 years serving at the church's world headquarters, first in the communication department and then as news editor for Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines. Hence, I've learned a bit about presenting the church and its image, while working with the press.)

Now, it's worth noting that Seventh-day Adventists have long been kinda big on education, self-improvement, and using one's talents in the best possible manner to serve both God and their fellow man. It's one reason why so many Adventists are involved in the medical field, for example. And Carson's own story -- told in his autobiography, "Gifted Hands" -- emphasizes his own pursuit of excellence in school and in the operating room.

Ellen G. White, a co-founder of the movement (see video trailer for Tell the World above), put it this way: "Higher than the highest human thought can reach is God's ideal for His children. Godliness -- godlikeness -- is the goal to be reached. ... He will advance as fast and as far as possible in every branch of true knowledge." (Education, page 18)

Might it be possible that White's counsel, which I'm certain Carson studied diligently over the years, played a role in shaping his worldview? After all, White preached hard work, writing, "We can never be saved in indolence and inactivity. There is no such thing as a truly converted person living a helpless, useless life. It is not possible for us to drift into heaven. No sluggard can enter there." (Christ's Object Lessons, page 280)

While it might be a stretch to expect a Politico policy reporter to have at hand quotes from a founder of Carson's denomination, it's not much to ask for a little digging, is it? By identifying Carson's specific affiliation, and perhaps examining its beliefs, an enterprising reporter could add some much-needed context.

But context and nuance seem to be a bit alien at Politico these days, at least where matters of faith are concerned. More's the pity. Was the assumption that he was merely another "evangelical" like all the others?

Meanwhile, for a blogger examining how the press doesn't "get" religion, Politico's current wave of coverage truly is "the gift that keeps on giving."

FIRST IMAGE: Eric Metaxas and Ben Carson speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons.

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Jailhouse religion and the case of the elite national newspaper that chose to ignore it

Jailhouse religion and the case of the elite national newspaper that chose to ignore it

Today's post falls under the general heading of "jailhouse religion."

Speaking of which, a story I wrote on a Texas woman who might have gotten away with murder — but became a Christian and turned herself in — was published this week.

GetReligion's own Mark Kellner described it "as an incredible true crime, confession, redemption story superbly told." I didn't even pay him to say that. So feel free to check it out.

End of shameless plug.

Back to our regularly scheduled analysis of religion — and holy ghosts — in the mainstream press: Today's focus is a Washington Post profile of a redeemed bank robber.

Catholic media professional Thomas Szyszkiewicz tipped us to this haunted story:

There's talk of "redemption" (it's even in the title of his book). His parents were pastors who founded some (unnamed, generic) church. He's teaching at a Catholic university (OK, we won't get into the discussion about how Catholic it is or isn't). There were moments of "grace," etc. What's missing? 

Um, could it be religion?

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Is this news or commentary? Times offers cynical look at Bill O'Reilly gift to needy Bronx parish

Is this news or commentary? Times offers cynical look at Bill O'Reilly gift to needy Bronx parish

Every now and then, the New York Times covers stories about ordinary people in New York City and even life inside ordinary religious communities in New York City.

Whenever this happens, the odds are pretty good that the stories will be high-quality and very interesting -- especially if they don't have anything to do with trendy issues linked to sexuality and hot-button cultural issues that kick things into Kellerism territory. A year or two ago, I was actually worried that we were praising the Times metro desk too much and might get people there into trouble.

This brings me to a feature that ran the other day with this headline: "A Bronx Church’s O’Reilly Factor."

Let me note that this story is part of a series by Pulitzer Prize winner Jim Dwyer that runs under the heading "About New York." Since I read the Gray Lady online -- even when I am in New York City (two-plus months a year) teaching -- I do not know if this series is presented to readers as a column, as a form of commentary. That question will matter later on, so hold that thought.

Anyway, this feature is a perfect example of a reporter finding a valid, people-driven local sidebar to a big story that is currently grabbing headlines from coast to coast. In this case, the big story is the fall of Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly, in the latest of many waves of sexual harassment accusations during his media career.

On the air, O'Reilly has ocassionally mentioned that he is Catholic, even though his worldview appears to be rooted in a kind of country-club GOP radical individualism. Then there was that timely handshake with Pope Francis. I was shocked and strangely pleased to learn that this is a subject GetReligion readers care nothing about, based on the near silence in response to my appeals for input here: "Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?"

But, lo, the Dwyer piece found an interesting O'Reilly connection to a local parish. Here is the overture:

In late morning, a murmur of prayers rose from the front pews of Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in the Bronx, a soft cloud of Spanish words that floated toward the soaring vaults of the nave.
Santa María, Madre de Dios …
At the back of the church, a plaque commemorates scores of donors whose might and money restored the church a half-century ago: Toscanos and Fioritos and Giantasios, a roster of the Italian families who lived in this parish for much of the 20th century, when it became known as the Bronx incarnation -- and by far the most authentic -- of New York’s Little Italies.
Stacked on a table were leaflets inviting people to contribute their thoughts on the restoration of the church for the 100th anniversary in September of its first Mass. The pastor of Mount Carmel, the Rev. Jonathan Morris, says the parish plans to spend $1.6 million on brick-and-mortar repairs, and on expanding its services to a community of immigrants -- many of them Mexican, and quite a few of those living without legal authority to be in the country.

Ah, so there is a Donald Trump-era immigration hook to this, only we are talking about restoring church walls, not building a vast you-know-what on the Mexico border.

What does this have to do with O'Reilly, a frequent supporter of the political gospel according to Trump? 

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Check out South China Morning Post: a good source for all things religious in Asia

Check out South China Morning Post: a good source for all things religious in Asia

Every so often it’s nice to give some credit to publications that do good work on the religion reporting front and I may have found a new source or, at the very least, one I have not run into before on this topic. We're talking about The South China Morning Post, published in Hong Kong.

I’ve run across it in recent weeks while looking for information on China, but the SCMP reports on a huge swath of South Asia well beyond China’s borders. And I’ve found a huge trove of religion-oriented pieces, including quite a bit on China’s response to ISIS’ involvement with Muslims in its western provinces. Click here for a piece on the Chinese jihadis in Syria. 

This major newsroom has also done a recent piece on how the Communist Party’s tentacles are still trying to influence Tibetan Buddhists. 

The SCMP has reached into neighboring Malaysia to explore why, for Muslims there, child sex is forbidden but child marriage is OK.  It just reviewed a book on why the death of Mao Tse-tung opened the gates for religion to flourish in China. And the newspaper has documented the government crackdown on Christianity, noting in a recent piece that, after officials ordered crosses torn down from 360 or so church towers, they have now ordered surveillance cameras set up inside churches in heavily Christian Wenzhou.

Christians and government ­officials have come to blows over demands that churches in a city known as “China’s Jerusalem” ­install surveillance cameras for “anti-terrorism and security ­purposes”.
The Zhejiang government issued the orders to ­churches in Wenzhou late last year and began implementing them before the Lunar New Year ­holiday in January.
The confrontation with the city’s Christian community, which is estimated to number roughly one million, comes three years after the authorities ordered the removal of crosses on top of church buildings, on the grounds that they were illegal structures. Opponents called the 2014 ­campaign religious persecution.

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Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia: How to cover dispute over Bible classes in public schools the right way

Almost heaven, West Virginia ...

I won't say the Washington Post's front-page story today on a lawsuit over a Bible elective in a West Virginia public school district is "almost heaven," but it's pretty good.

Excellent, actually.

Three months ago, I highlighted an Associated Press story on the same federal lawsuit at the heart of the Post's report.

In my earlier post, I said:

I don't have a real problem with The Associated Press' coverage of a religion-related federal lawsuit filed against a West Virginia school district.
I mean, it's a threadbare account — roughly 400 words — but that's typical of AP news these days. At least this one makes an attempt to present both sides.
However, the story does — IMHO — raise more questions than it answers.

After supplying a bit more commentary and explanation, I concluded:

To understand what's really happening in the West Virginia school district — and the constitutionality of it or not — AP or another news organization would need to do much more reporting: Interview students, parents and teachers. Review the curriculum. Talk to church-and-state experts. Study past U.S. Supreme Court decisions on religion in public schools.
Of course, reporting all of the above would require more than 400 words.

Which leads us back to today's Post story, which, by the way, tops 2,000 words.

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Hey NPR: ISIS threats to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai are not just about tourist dollars

Hey NPR: ISIS threats to St. Catherine's Monastery in Sinai are not just about tourist dollars

It is my sincere hope that there were no Eastern Orthodox Christians hurt in automobile accidents last week if they went into shock and swerved off the road after hearing the following National Public Radio mini-story on the radio. My fellow Orthodox believers: If you have hot coffee in hand as you read this post -- Put. It. Down.

The headline captures the tone: "Gunmen Attack Popular Religious Tourism Site In Sinai." What's the problem with that?

Well, we're talking about St. Catherine's Monastery, which is way, way, way more important -- in terms of history, art and significance to world Christianity -- than its role as a "tourism site."

Imagine the reaction among religious Jews if NPR had referred, after a similar attack, to the Western "wailing" Wall of the temple in Jerusalem as a "popular tourism site." I mean, it is a place visited by tourists, but that does not even hint at the site's significance to those who consider it a holy place. This is pushing things, but is Mecca a "popular tourism site"?

OK, forget religion for a moment. There are solid reasons that St. Catherine's has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We are talking about what many believe is the world's oldest library.

What about the monastery's priceless, irreplaceable sacred art? Click here to check out the Metropolitan Museum of Art tribute to St, Catherine's and the icons venerated there by the monks. And here is the excellent guide to the collection maintained by Princeton University. For starters, we are talking about the home of Christ of Sinai, which is the oldest known icon of the image known as Christ Pantocrator. You can make a case that this is the world's most important, the most beloved, Christian icon.

So what did NPR say in this mini-report? Here's the top of what is stored online:

There's been an attack by gunmen near a prominent religious tourism site in southern Sinai but Egyptian authorities say no tourists were involved. One security officer was killed and four others injured.

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More thinking about the old religious left and its muddled future in America's public square

More thinking about the old religious left and its muddled future in America's public square

Here we go again.

If seems that the time is right for people to think about the religious left. In some cases, people are clearly yearning -- as they have for decades -- for some doctrinally liberal movement that is the grassroots equivalent of the Religious Right to rise up and help save the world from, well, the Religious Right.

You might recall that there was a whole tread of commentary online about this topic just the other day.

It started with a Reuters report that was perfectly summed up in the headline: " 'Religious left' emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era."

That led to a Religious Dispatches thinker by liberal scribe Daniel Schultz with this headline: "IS THE RELIGIOUS LEFT EMERGING AS A POLITICAL FORCE? NO." I left all the caps in that headline, since it kind of helps sum things up.

Now all kinds of things happened at that point, including my piece pointing readers to Sculltz, with this headline: "Rising force in American politics? Define the 'religious left' and give three examples." That led to a podcast and follow-up piece: "Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?"

Then there was a piece by Mark Tooley at the "Juicy Ecumenism" blog, as well as a podcast and transcript of a feature by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr.

Finally, Schultz reacted to all of this disturbing acclaim by conservative writers (of various kinds) with a follow-up at Religion Dispatches that ran with this headline: "WHY THE RELIGIOUS LEFT ISN’T COMING TOGETHER, AND WHY IT MATTERS."

The basic idea is that the old religious left, which focused on the work of a predictable set of doctrinally liberal flocks, including progressive Catholics and Reform Jews, appears to be a thing of the past -- outside some elite leaders in politically blue zip codes. The big problem is that the old mainline flocks are not, shall be say, in growth mode. Why?

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Press offerings during holy seasons (continued): Contrasting approaches in The New York Times

Press offerings during holy seasons (continued): Contrasting approaches in The New York Times

Weeks ago, The Religion Guy discussed the perpetual media problem of handling religious holidays and highlighted a godsend (so to speak) for Holy Week 2017,  Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge’s “The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ.” 

Alas, a quick Google check finds no coverage of her or her blockbuster.

The New York Times, whose top editor recently confessed that “media powerhouses ... don’t get the role of religion in people’s lives,” proved that point with the sort of potshot at tradition one often gets from the mainstream news media during holy seasons. Molly Worthen’s Good Friday piece looked askance at evangelical conservatives’ biblical beliefs and “natural human aversion to unwelcome facts.” 

Then came Easter and a contrasting, surprising Ross Douthat column that meditated on U.S. “mainline” Protestant slippage.

Complaints about religious conservatives are the oldest of old news, so Douthat’s opus was by far the more interesting. In this case a political conservative was preaching to “this newspaper’s secular liberal readers,” and a staunch Catholic was telling cultural Protestants to shape up. The column was part of his mordant “implausible proposals” series, which mingles wry fantasy with sincerity.

 Douthat took an overly familiar theme in a new and unexpected direction. It’s well-known that times are tough for America’s seven ecumenically allied (the "Seven Sisters" camp) and predominantly white “mainline” Protestant denominations known for theological flexibility. Over the past four decades their combined memberships have shrunk 30 percent, from 28,160,000 to 19,590,000. Nothing like this has happened previously in American religion.

(Yes, I am aware that those “Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches” data are out of date because the National Council of Churches was unable to compile its standard annual the past five years -- a sign of mainline disarray.)

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BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

BBC and Easter: If culture is upstream of politics, might doctrine -- for many -- be upstream of culture?

Ask most Americans to name the most important day on the Christian calendar and I'm afraid (as a guy who took a bunch of church history classes) that the answer you will hear the most is "Christmas."

That is a very, very American answer. As the old saying goes, the two most powerful influences on the U.S. economy are the Pentagon and Christmas. There's no question which holiday puts the most shoppers in malls and ads in newspapers (grabbing the attention of editors).

But, as a matter of liturgical reality, there is no question that the most important holy day for Christians is Easter, called "Pascha" in the churches of the East. I realize that St. Paul is not an authoritative voice, in terms of Associated Press style, but this is how he put it:

... If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.

Now, I am not here to argue about doctrine. What "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about during this week's podcast (click here to check that out) was the fact that what religious believers affirm in terms in doctrine often plays a crucial role in how they live and act. Thus, it is often wise for reporters to ask core doctrinal questions in order to spot fault lines inside Christian communities, especially during times of conflict.

Here at GetReligion, I have repeatedly mentioned (some witty readers once proposed a drinking game linked to this) the "tmatt trio" of doctrinal questions that I have used for several decades now. Here is a version taken from some of my conversations with the late George Gallup, Jr.

* Are biblical accounts of the resurrection of Jesus accurate? Did this happen?

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