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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Conservative, moderate, liberal: A few more thoughts on Baylor, Baptists and theological labels

Conservative, moderate, liberal: A few more thoughts on Baylor, Baptists and theological labels

In my post Thursday, I delved into the religious background of Baylor University's first female president — a Baptist supportive of female senior pastors.

In that post, I noted that the Dallas Morning Newsin a front-page story — referred to Baylor as a "conservative Baptist school."

I wrote:

I'm not certain that "conservative Baptist" is the best description for Baylor, particularly in Texas. Longtime observers know that Baylor in the 1990s "survived a fierce struggle between conservatives and moderates at the Southern Baptist Convention." As Christianity Today notes, Baylor maintains a relationship with the moderate (in Baptist terms) Baptist General Convention of Texas, which "selects a quarter of Baylor’s board of regents and provides a sliver of its annual operating budget."

I also suggested that describing Baylor as "conservative" was questionable given its hiring of a president, Linda Livingstone, who has attended churches affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. The CBF, I said, "includes progressive Southern Baptist and former Southern Baptist congregations."

My post drew some excellent feedback from two longtime observers of Texas Baptists — and I wanted to highlight their insight in this follow-up post.

The first comment came from Jeffrey Weiss, the former award-winning Godbeat pro for the Dallas Morning News. Given that Weiss is in the midst of a cancer battle about which he has written eloquently for his own newspaper and Religion News Service, I was especially grateful to hear from him.

Here is what Weiss said:

I would gently suggest that BGCT remains "conservative" if one need not be extreme to justify the word. CBF is a different story, however. Fascinating!

I always appreciate gentle comments from faithful readers. Many thanks, kind sir!

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Once again, Time magazine's top 100 influential people list shortchanges the religious world

Once again, Time magazine's top 100 influential people list shortchanges the religious world

Each year, Time magazine comes out with its “100 Most Influential People” list, which is often clueless about the world of religion.

Well, it's deja vu all over again. This year’s selection did not fail to disappoint.

There were no icons of the religious left, such the Rev. James Martin nor, on the opposite pole, people like the Rev. Russell Moore, who took a lot of heat -- and nearly lost his job -- for criticizing evangelical Trump supporters.

There was no Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, the ISIS leader whose butchery and short-lived Islamic  caliphate is still creating international havoc. (He made the short list for Time’s 2015 person of the year, so go figure).

There was no sign of the Rev. Tim Keller, the Presbyterian pastor who, against many odds, started a Reformed congregation in highly secular Manhattan 28 years ago and grew it into a 5,000-member congregation. No less than the New York magazine has called Keller the city’s “most successful Christian evangelist.” It was only recently that he became more widely known after Princeton Theological Seminary announced he’d won its annual Kuyper Prize, then reneged on giving him the award after an outcry from theological liberals.

The only religious leader cited was Pope Francis, in an essay written by Cardinal Blaise Cupich:

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God-talk in Politico: Website gingerly approaches Trump's religiosity in profile

God-talk in Politico: Website gingerly approaches Trump's religiosity in profile

The late Phyllis Tickle, doyenne of writers about religious publishing, has a warm place in my heart for her 1997 book, "God-Talk in America." (And, yes, it's partly because she said something nice about one of my books therein.)

But when we consider "God-talk" today, much of that discussion must center on President Donald Trump and his administration. A nearly infinite number of pixels have been spilled in the analysis of Trump's references to faith versus the rather coarse lifestyle he embraced in his pre-campaign days. I am sure armies of reporters are checking into any current rumors.

Now, as we approach the 100-day mark of the new administration, Politico jumps into the God-talk arena, asking, "Has Trump found religion in the Oval Office?" Here's the opening:

President Donald Trump has increasingly infused references to God into his prepared remarks -- calling on God to bless all the world after launching strikes in Syria, asking God to bless the newest Supreme Court justice, invoking the Lord to argue in favor of a war on opioids.
He's also taken other steps to further cultivate a Christian right that helped elect him, granting new levels of access to Christian media and pushing socially conservative positions that don't appear to come naturally to him.
One of the first interviews Trump sat for as president was with the Christian Broadcasting Network’s David Brody.
“I’ve always felt the need to pray,” Trump said in that late-January interview. “The office is so powerful that you need God even more because your decisions are no longer, ‘Gee I’m going to build a building in New York.’ … These are questions of massive, life-and-death.”
“There’s almost not a decision that you make when you’re sitting in this position that isn’t a really life-altering position,” Trump added. “So God comes into it even more so.”

But don't let the semi-friendly tone fool you, gentle reader. 

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Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

Our Fox News question remains: Was there any real religion factor in career of Bill O'Reilly?

What can I say? People keep asking me if there is some kind of "religion ghost" lurking in the story of the fall of Fox News superstar Bill O'Reilly.

After all, he was one of America's leading "conservatives."

O'Reilly also mentioned, from time to time, his Catholic roots. Yes, we will get to that timely handshake with Pope Francis in a minute (Religion News Service report here). As religion-beat patriarch Richard Ostling told me, in an email one-liner: "Since O'Reilly made so much of his Catholic identity, perhaps he should have asked Pope Francis to hear his confession when they met at the Vatican?"

But, you see, this is where I need to plead ignorance and seek help from readers. As I have said before, I never watched O'Reilly's show. I don't think I ever watched an episode from end to end, because I truly despised the style and content of his baseball-bat commentary work. His opinion-to-reporting ratio was not my cup of tea. I remain a Brit Hume, Kirsten Powers, Megyn Kelly, Howard Kurtz kind of guy.

So help me here: Did O'Reilly consistently make a big deal out of the CONTENT of his Catholic identity or did he just mention it in passing? Did he quote scripture, the Catholic Catechism or papal documents? I honestly want to know.

I also hear this: What about the whole "War on Christmas" riff that he used year after year after year, world without end?

From what I have seen, that part of his work was based on his anti-political-correctness stance and a kind of marketplace version of civil religion. I never heard him engage in the actual details of church-state debates linked to this important First Amendment topic. He just bashed away, knowing that his audience loved it. Did I miss something?

If there is a valid GetReligion angle to this story it is, in my opinion, the possibility that the very public falls of O'Reilly and original Fox News maestro Roger Ailes offer insights into the political philosophy at the heart of this news operation.

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