Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Podcast thinking: Why do many reporters avoid theological news on religious left?

Back in the fall of 1993, I made — believe it or not — my first-ever trip as an adult to New York City. I had covered many important news stories in American and around the world, but had never hit the Big Apple.

I stayed in a guest room at Union Theological Seminary, since I would be attending what turned out to be, for me, a pivotal religion-beat conference at the nearby Columbia University School of Journalism. But that’s another story for another day.

Here is the story for this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in), which is linked this week’s Twitter explosion in which Union Seminary students confessed their environmental sins to some plants and sought forgiveness.

On that beautiful New York Sunday morning, I decided to head to the Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine. I was, at the time, an evangelical Episcopalian (with high-church sympathies) at I was trying to run into my wife’s favorite author — Madeleine L’Engle (click here for my tribute when she died). She was writer in residence at the cathedral, but later told me that she worshipped at an evangelical parish in the city.

Why did she do that? Well, in part because of services like the “Missa Gaia (Earth Mass)” I attended that Sunday. As I wrote later in a piece called “Liturgical Dances With Wolves”:

In the Kyrie, the saxophonist and his ensemble improvised to the taped cry of a timber wolf. A humpback whale led the Sanctus.

Skeptic Carl Sagan preached, covering turf from the joyful “bisexual embraces'' of earthworms to the greedy sins of capitalists. The earth, he stressed, is one body made of creatures who eat and drink each other, inhabit each other's bodies, and form a sacred “web of interaction and interdependence that embraces the planet.'' … The final procession was spectacular and included an elephant, a camel, a vulture, a swarm of bees in a glass frame, a bowl of blue-green algae and an elegantly decorated banana.

The key moment for me?

Before the bread and wine were brought to the altar, the musicians offered a rhythmic chant that soared into the cathedral vault. … “Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Obatala, ruler of the Heavens. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Yemenja, ruler of the waters of life. Praises to Ausar, ruler of Amenta, the realm of the ancestors. Praises to Ra and Ausar, rulers of the light and the resurrected soul.” …

Then the congregation joined in and everyone sang “Let all mortal flesh keep silence.' “

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Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

Friday Five: #RNA2019, pastor suicide, newspaper credibility, culture wars, hilarious sermons

It’s day two of the Religion News Association annual conference in Las Vegas.

That’s right — the nation’s religion journalists are discussing faith and spirituality in Sin City.

More on that as we dive into Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: I wrote about the RNA meeting in my post Thursday.

By all means, follow the conference in real time via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page. …

2. Most popular GetReligion post: “Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide,” Terry Mattingly wrote in this week’s No. 1 most-clicked post.

If you haven’t, make sure to read the post. In it, tmatt noted that this is one of the most personal topics that he has ever touched on here at GetReligion. Yes, all of this is linked to one of the major national religion-news stories of last week — the suicide of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson, the 30-year-old founder of a a nationally known ministry for people struggling with depression and suicide. Then again, the recent 9/11 anniversary played a role in this post. And double make sure to listen to the related podcast.

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New York wants to rescind its anti-conversion therapy law and no one nails them for it?

New York wants to rescind its anti-conversion therapy law and no one nails them for it?

Remember all the sturm und drang about cities and states banning “conversion therapy?” (For the uninitiated, that is therapy that seeks to change one’s homosexual desires to heterosexual ones).

New York City was a leader in banning this therapy on the grounds that it doesn’t work and leads to depression and suicide. The idea of banning this therapy has become such a cause célèbre, there’s been two films, both released in 2018 about the issue.

Then New York decided to rescind its law.

Why? Because it was afraid of a lawsuit. That’s a big, big news story. Right?

As the New York Times tells us:

Nearly two years ago, the New York City Council celebrated when it passed a far-reaching ban on conversion therapy, a discredited practice to change a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

On Thursday, Corey Johnson, the Council speaker, who is gay, said the Council would act swiftly to repeal the ban.

The move is a gambit designed to neutralize a federal lawsuit filed against the city by a conservative Christian legal organization; if the case were to be heard by the Supreme Court, advocates for the L.G.B.T. community fear that the panel could issue a ruling that could severely damage attempts to ban or curtail conversion therapy.

As columnist Dave Barry used to say: You can’t make this stuff up. The article adds the city has amended a regulation in the past in the face of a lawsuit.

Supporters of repealing the conversion therapy ban say that it is a regrettable but necessary step given the Supreme Court’s conservative makeup under the Trump administration.

“Obviously I didn’t want to repeal this. I don’t want to be someone who is giving in to these right-wing groups,” Mr. Johnson said in an interview. “But the Supreme Court has become conservative; the Second Circuit, which oversees New York, has become more conservative.”

Wait a minute: If the law was so needed, why are its backers abandoning it two years later?

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About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

About George Packer's takedown of wokeness: is moral absolutism the problem?

Generally at GetReligion we try to avoid duplicate posts on one article, but Terry Mattingly has graciously agreed to let this piece follow his analysis of “When the Culture War Comes for the Kids.” I wrote it on the weekend, before I had any idea that tmatt had called dibs on a specific religion angle in this must-read piece in The Atlantic Monthly in a message to my more prolific colleagues.

Here, then, is my perspective. There are many important topics in Packer’s essay.

Packer’s 10,000-word essay on how hard-edged wokeness affected his children’s education is a stirring account of a liberal writer who has been backed into one too many corners by illiberal progressives and entrenched powers. Most of Packer’s work here makes me want to welcome him to the freedom of not caring what wokeness partisans think of you.

Packer describes conflicts in education first as a clash between democracy and meritocracy, sometimes with a self-effacing humor:

True meritocracy came closest to realization with the rise of standardized tests in the 1950s, the civil-rights movement, and the opening of Ivy League universities to the best and brightest, including women and minorities. A great broadening of opportunity followed. But in recent decades, the system has hardened into a new class structure in which professionals pass on their money, connections, ambitions, and work ethic to their children, while less educated families fall further behind, with little chance of seeing their children move up.

When parents on the fortunate ledge of this chasm gaze down, vertigo stuns them. Far below they see a dim world of processed food, obesity, divorce, addiction, online-education scams, stagnant wages, outsourcing, rising morbidity rates — and they pledge to do whatever they can to keep their children from falling. They’ll stay married, cook organic family meals, read aloud at bedtime every night, take out a crushing mortgage on a house in a highly rated school district, pay for music teachers and test-prep tutors, and donate repeatedly to overendowed alumni funds. The battle to get their children a place near the front of the line begins before conception and continues well into their kids’ adult lives. At the root of all this is inequality — and inequality produces a host of morbid symptoms, including a frantic scramble for status among members of a professional class whose most prized acquisition is not a Mercedes plug-in hybrid SUV or a family safari to Maasai Mara but an acceptance letter from a university with a top‑10 U.S. News & World Report ranking.

What leaves me restless in Packer’s essay is the language he sometimes uses to describe the conflict. In disputing the school’s resistance to standard testing, he refers to the tests’ fierce opponents as engaging in “moral absolutism.”

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Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

OK, I hope the boss man — GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly — will forgive me for a quick, shorter-than-normal post.

I’m in Las Vegas, either for the Vegas Dance Explosion or the Religion News Association annual conference. I’m trying to remember which one. Both are happening right now at the Westgate Resort and Casino.

So, I flipped a coin and ended up in a big ballroom for the RNA meeting.

But seriously, folks, what better place for a three-day gathering of the nation’s religion journalists than Sin City? Besides me, GetReligion’s Julia Duin is here.

A bunch of interesting and important religion issues are on the agenda for the three-day event. You can follow it all live via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page.

The digital age is something else, allowing anyone with internet access to be a part of this week’s festivities.

Speaking of the digital age, Slate published a fascinating piece this week on “God’s Conversion Rate.” The focus is that “Churches are using targeted ads on social media to convert and recruit.” Now, that’s not exactly breaking news, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a specific story on it, so I enjoyed this one.

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Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Praying to plants: Twitter explodes when Union Seminary holds one of its interfaith rites

Yes, this was click-bait heaven.

Yes, this was an oh-so-typical Twitter storm.

Yes, this was a perfect example of a “conservative story,” in a niche-news era in which social-media choirs — conservative in this case — send up clouds of laughs, jeers and gasps of alleged shock in response to some online signal.

I am referring, of course, to that climate-change confession service that happened at Union Theological Seminary, which has long been a Manhattan Maypole for the doctrinal dances that incarnate liberal Protestant trends in America.

It’s important to note that the spark for this theological fire was an official tweet from seminary leaders. Here is the top of a Washington Examiner story about the result:

Students at Union Theological Seminary prayed to a display of plants set up in the chapel of the school, prompting the institution to issue a statement explaining the practice as many on social media mocked them.

"Today in chapel, we confessed to plants," the nation's oldest independent seminary declared Tuesday on Twitter. "Together, we held our grief, joy, regret, hope, guilt and sorrow in prayer; offering them to the beings who sustain us but whose gift we too often fail to honor. What do you confess to the plants in your life?"

The ceremony, which is part of professor Claudio Carvalhaes’ class “Extractivism: A Ritual/Liturgical Response,” drew ridicule from many on Twitter, some of whom accused the seminary and students of having lost their minds.

OK, let’s pause for a moment to ask a journalism question: Would there have been a different response if this event have inspired a front page, or Sunday magazine, feature at The New York Times?

What kind of story? A serious news piece could have focused on (a) worship trends on the revived religious left, (b) this seminary’s attempt to find financial stability through interfaith theological education, (c) the history of Neo-pantheistic Gaia liturgies in New York (personal 1993 flashback here) linked to environmental theology and/or (d) all of the above.

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For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

For newsroom source lists: A female Muslim lawyer to watch on religious-liberty issues

A Pegasus Books release has this curious title: “When Islam Is Not a Religion.”

Huh? Say what?

Is the pope not Catholic? Don’t U.S. Democrats constitute a political party? (With Britain’s Conservatives and Labour that’s open to question lately.) The subtitle then explains what the book is about: “Inside America’s Fight for Religious Freedom.”

Author Asma Uddin’s title targets American right-wingers who are claiming Islam is not “really” a religion — but a dangerous political movement.

Islam is, in actuality, a variegated global religion that usually intermingles beliefs with politics in ways that can become problematic, just as with some variants of Christianity -- including some of those making that anti-Islam claim.

Uddin, a Pakistani-American lawyer in Washington, D.C., belongs on your prime source list (if she is not there already). Contact: asma.uddin@altmuslimah.com. For starters, this Muslim studied her civil rights specialization at the elite University of Chicago Law School.

She became the founding editor of a lively, decade-old online magazine that journalists should be monitoring, altmuslimah.com. It emphasizes hot-button gender issues in Islam (e.g. women’s rights, man-woman relationships, polygamy, harem, genital mutilation, honor killing, headscarves and burqas). You won’t want to miss articles on whether Islam, and also Christianity, can consistently be considered religions (!), like this one.

In an interview posted by her law school last year, Uddin says her altmuslimah colleagues felt “there were so many of us who wanted to be authentic to our faith, devoted to our faith, and who were struggling with issues that we didn’t always know how to fit with our lived realities. It turned out that these were conversations that people were desperate to have. The response has been overwhelming.”

Most important, Uddin is a principled defender of religious liberty across the board, naturally quick to defend the rights of fellow American Muslims but also concerned about believers in all other faiths, including those who suffer suppression in Muslim countries.

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Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

Religion News Service story on Young Life avoids crucial, complex doctrine questions at Duke

If you dig into the history of Duke University — formerly Trinity College — it’s hard to avoid its deep roots in the evangelical Methodist movement.

The key, today, is that Duke is a private university, one defined by research, basketball and modern doctrines linked to its powerful nonsectarian identity. You can still see a few Methodist ties that do not bind in the way the school’s trustees operate (click here for more on that).

However, it is educational — when considering Duke history — to follow the money.

The University has historic ties to the United Methodist Church. The institution was begun in 1838-39 when Methodist and Quaker families in northwest Randolph County united to transform Brown's Schoolhouse into Union Institute, thus providing permanent education for their children. A formal agreement with the Methodist Church was entered into in 1859 when the name of the school was changed to Trinity College. The motto, Eruditio et Religio, which is based on a Charles Wesley hymn, and the official seal, both of which are still in use today, were adopted in 1859. The name of Trinity College continues as the undergraduate college of the University.

The most significant development in the history of the school came with the adoption of Trinity College as the primary beneficiary of the philanthropy of the Duke family in 1889. This occurred in part because the college was an institution of the Methodist Church and Washington Duke practiced stewardship as taught by his church. 

So here is an interesting question linked to a current doctrinal dispute on the Duke campus.

Right up front, note this: Duke is a private university and, thus, its leaders have every right to define the doctrines and covenants that govern their campus. That’s true for liberal once-Christian schools as well as many traditional colleges and universities. The question for journalists and lawyers is whether Duke leaders are being consistent in the proclamation and application of their new doctrines.

This leads us to a recent Religion News Service article that ran with this headline: “Duke University’s student government rejects Young Life over LGBTQ policies.” The problem is that Young Life doesn’t have “policies” that are independent of 2,000 years of traditional Christian “doctrines” on marriage and sexuality.

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Arizona media sizzle over whether calligraphers can decline to create gay wedding invites

Arizona media sizzle over whether calligraphers can decline to create gay wedding invites

Lawsuits involving gay plaintiffs and businesses in the wedding industry are plentiful these days. Usually these cases involve a jilted couple whose bakery, event destination or photographer wants no part of the nuptials for religious reasons.

But this time around, a pair of Phoenix calligraphers sued the city's human rights ordinance, saying they have a right to turn down requests to create gay-themed custom-designed invites. The state Supreme court ruled in their favor on Monday.

How did the mainstream press respond? Did this story get covered as news or did it draw editorial lightning bolts and that’s that?

We'll start with the Arizona Republic's news story with the headline: Phoenix artists don't have to make LGBTQ wedding invitations, Arizona Supreme Court rules.”

A Phoenix ordinance that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people from discrimination cannot be used to force artists to create custom wedding invitations for same-sex couples, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled Monday. The high court's decision overturns multiple lower-court decisions that protected the portion of Phoenix's nondiscrimination ordinance that applies to the LGBTQ community. An attorney for Phoenix insisted that the ruling was narrow and did not strike down the city law. Rather, the court ruled that "one company" could refuse to make "one type of product" for LGBTQ couples, he said.

"Today's decision is not a win, but it is not a loss. It means we will continue to have a debate over equality in this community," Mayor Kate Gallego said. However, LGBTQ community advocates fear that the decision, however narrow, creates a pathway for other lawsuits. "This decision opens the door for other bigoted owners to outright discriminate against LGBTQ people for who we are and who we love," Brianna Westbrook, vice-chair of the Arizona Democratic Party, tweeted after the ruling.

Not only are the plaintiffs not even mentioned until one-third of the way through the piece, there is no reaction from conservative First Amendment groups.

The only POVs provided are from left of center.

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