One of the oddest assignments in journalism: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

One of the oddest assignments in journalism: 'Polygamy beat' at Salt Lake Tribune

Mormon polygamists are notoriously tough to interview and photograph unless there’s some sort of prior trust relationship. That’s why I was amazed to see photos in the High Country News of an annual polygamist gathering in southeast Utah.

The photos by Shannon Mullane, which unfortunately are copyrighted and can’t be reproduced here, are really good. They are also very human; polygamists giving each other back rubs and hugs; going on rafting trips and having picnics. Access like that comes from hanging out with people and showing up year after year as they get to know you. (I had to do a lot of that while researching my book on Appalachian Pentecostal serpent handlers.)

What’s different about this piece is that the families portrayed here are dressed like normal people, not like the women wearing long, flowered dresses and braided hair swept up into puffy coifs who get shown on TV.

On a Saturday in July, the sun shone on the red-rock cliffs of southeastern Utah. Heidi Foster sat on the banks of the Colorado River, handing out fruit snacks to kids from polygamous families.

Foster, a plural wife from the suburbs of Salt Lake City, was among about 130 people on a river trip. Foster, who brought five of her own children, saw it as part of an important weekend where her kids could drop their guard and be themselves. “If someone asks, ‘How many moms do you have?’ you can tell them,” Foster said.

The rafting was one of the highlights of the annual Rock Rally, a five-day polygamous jamboree at Rockland Ranch, a polygamous community about 40 minutes south of Moab. The rally included hiking, zip-lining, rafting and a dance with a country music band from a polygamous community on the Utah-Arizona line.

I looked at the byline, did some digging and realized that the writer, Nate Carlisle, has something called the polygamy beat with the Salt Lake Tribune. Never knew there was such an animal, but the Tribune has had the beat for years. Carlisle took it on in 2006.

It’s a very complex assignment with the need for deep sources.

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BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

BBC asks: What is the future of religion? Does organized religion have a future?

THE QUESTION:

This cosmic theme is raised by a British Broadcasting Corporation article under the headline, “Tomorrow’s Gods: What is the Future of Religion?”

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

In its early history the BBC (born in 1927, the year of the U.S. Radio Act) was nicknamed “Auntie” for its comforting, old-style tone. But The Beeb goes futuristic in a current online series that takes “the long view of humanity.” An August article offered the forecast about  religion (click here).

Writer Sumit Paul-Choudhury, former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist magazine, notes that religions ebb and flow across eons.

The Parsees’ religion originated with Zarathustra (a.k.a. Zoroaster) in roughly the era of the ancient Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah. The faith  had millions of followers in the Persian Empire’s heyday but today counts only 60,000. Christians began as a tiny Jewish sect, spread through the Roman Empire, and today are found  most everywhere and practice the world’s largest religion.

Rather than seeing religions as providing spiritual truths and essential morality, Paul-Choudhury leans toward the “functionalist” theory by which creeds evolved to provide social cohesion. Think Karl Marx, who deemed religion the “opium of the masses.” As clans and tribes gave way to large and diverse nations, people were able to coexist through devotion to “Big Gods,” and so forth.

Importantly, this BBC writer foresees a bleak future. Growing numbers “say they have no religion at all. We obey laws made and enforced by governments, not by God. Secularism is on the rise, with science providing tools to understand and shape the world. Given all that, there’s a growing consensus that the future of religion is that it has no future.”

Thinkers have been promoting that same consensus since the 17th and 18th Century “Enlightenment.”

A special problem hampered religions during the past century, he briefly acknowledges. Nations like Soviet Russia and China “adopted atheism as state policy and frowned on even private religious expression.”

Frowned”?

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Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

Believers must face this: All kinds of people (pastors too) wrestle with depression and suicide

This week’s “Crossroads” podcast about the death of the Rev. Jarrid Wilson (click here to tune that in) was not business as usual. Here is my original GetReligion post on this topic: “Symbolic details too painful for words: Shocking death of Jarrid Wilson stunned us all.”

For me, this topic got personal really quick.

First, there was the subject of depression and suicide. Anyone who has wrestled with depression (or has had loved ones face that darkness) knows that, at times, people swim in what seems like an ocean of irrational feelings and impulses.

My senior year of high school was like that. Several times I kind of came to my senses and would not know how I got to where I was — usually the classical music section of the main Port Arthur, Texas, music store. I still cannot hear the second movement of Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), without shuddering. There are memories there (cue at 8:46 and hang on).

I am sure that whatever I experienced was only a glimpse of what Wilson faced. It’s amazing to me that he preached on these topics and bravely took on the task — the calling — of helping others. Wilson said that he wanted God to show him a purpose for his life. He had to know that answering the call involved risk.

Also, then there was the timing of this week’s tragedy. Yes, this unfolded hours just before Suicide Awareness Day. And then came the anniversary of Sept. 11.

I found myself thinking about Father Mychal Judge, the Franciscan friar who served as a chaplain for New York City firefighters. He ran into the North Tower of the World Trade Center with the first responders. When the South Tower fell, firefighters discovered that the 69-year-old priest had collapsed. His heart gave out. Firefighters carried his body out of the rubble and placed at the altar of the nearby St. Peter’s Catholic Church. Then the firefighters went back to work.

This priest had to know that there was risk involved in running into that last fire. But that was part of his calling. At his funeral, his friend Father Michael Duffy said this in the sermon:

Mychal Judge's body was the first one released from Ground Zero. His death certificate has the number '1' on the top. Of the thousands of people who perished in that terrible holocaust, why was Mychal Judge number one? And I think I know the reason. Mychal's goal and purpose in life was to bring the firemen to the point of death so they would be ready to meet their maker.

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Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Welcome to the published-later-in-the-day-than-usual edition of Friday Five.

I’m on a reporting trip to Tennessee with my regular job, and GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly graciously gave me extra time to write this.

After that brief intro, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is the story that I just can’t get out of my mind: the death of pastor, author and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson by suicide.

In a post Thursday, tmatt delved into Religion News Service’s initial coverage of the tragedy. Look for much more discussion in a post Saturday related to GR’s weekly podcast.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: My post declaring that “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously” was our No. 1 analysis of the week.

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How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

How do today's woes on the mainstream religion beat compare with 1983 and 1994?

Religion writers are buzzing about Prof. Charles Camosy’s Sept. 6 commentary on religion’s sagging cultural and journalistic status.

Decades ago, GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly, who analyzed Camosy in this post surveyed this same terrain in a classic 1983 article for Quill magazine, drawn from his research at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. This is a journalism issue with legs.

There’s a little-known third such article, not available online. While cleaning out basement files, The Religion Guy unearthed a 1994 piece in the unfortunately short-lived Forbes Media Critic titled “Separation of Church & Press?” Writer Stephen Bates, then a senior fellow at the Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies, now teaches media studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Both of these older articles were pretty glum.

Religion coverage suffers today as part a print industry on life support, in large part because of a digital advertising crisis. Radio and TV coverage of religion, then and now, is thin to non-existent and the Internet is a zoo of reporting, opinion and advocacy — often at the same time.

Those earlier times could fairly be looked back upon as the golden age of religion reporting. (Side comment: What a pleasure to read quotes in both articles from The Guy’s talented competitors and pals in that era.

Former Newsweek senior editor Edward Diamond (by then teaching journalism at New York University) told Bates that back in the 1960s the newsmagazine’s honchos had considered dropping the religion section entirely. If true, they were open to journalistic malparactice. In those years, competitors at Time, The New Yorker, the wires and newspapers were chock full of coverage from Catholicism’s Second Vatican Council and its tumultuous aftermath.

By the 1980s, Mattingly hoped for possible change in religion coverage’s “low-priority” status as journalism’s “best-kept secret.”

You want news? Let’s look back at that era.

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Debate continues, after AP report on Catholic church's apparent blessing of assisted suicide

Debate continues, after AP report on Catholic church's apparent blessing of assisted suicide

t looked like an innocuous religion story and the kind we often get here in the Pacific Northwest: A positive feature on a dying man who decided to end his life through euthanasia –- and about a Catholic church that played a role in it all.

Until complaints started to pour in, asking why a Catholic priest and parish appeared to be giving their blessing to assisted suicide. What followed was a comedy of errors on the part of an archdiocese caught flatfooted by the event.

Yes, this is an old story. But the debates are going on and on and on.

Dated Aug. 25 (yes, I am a few weeks late on this), the Associated Press story began thus:

The day he picked to die, Robert Fuller had the party of a lifetime.

In the morning, he dressed in a blue Hawaiian shirt and married his partner while sitting on a couch in their senior housing apartment. He then took the elevator down three floors to the building’s common room, decorated with balloons and flowers.

With an elaborately carved walking stick, he shuffled around to greet dozens of well-wishers and friends from across the decades, fellow church parishioners and social-work volunteers. The crowd spilled into a sunny courtyard on a beautiful spring day.

A gospel choir sang. A violinist and soprano performed “Ave Maria.” A Seattle poet recited an original piece imagining Fuller as a tree, with birds perched on his thoughts.

A year ago, he got cancer of the tongue and decided against chemo, saying he’d go the assisted suicide route. His decision was understandable. The cancer was causing him slowly to choke to death. His throat was so blocked up, he had to take food through a gastric tube. Radiation would just prolong the agony.

Fuller began returning more often to the Catholic church he had long attended. His spiritual views were hardly orthodox — he considered himself a shaman, and described his impending death as a state of “perpetual meditation” — but Seattle’s St. Therese Parish was known for accommodating a range of beliefs.

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Our periodic reminder for journalists: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda

Our periodic reminder for journalists: The Freedom From Religion Foundation has an agenda

It’s almost humorous.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation — whose name succinctly characterizes the organization’s agenda — complains about the conservative Republican governor of one of the nation’s most religious states speaking at a church.

A leading newspaper in that state rushes to report the claim that the governor is doing something unconstitutional, as if it’s breaking news.

Except that it’s really the same old, same old — and regurgitating the anti-religion group’s talking points as if they’re the gospel truth is not great journalism.

I came across the story that sparked this post via the Pew Research Center’s daily religion headlines today. Believe it or not, it was the second headline on Pew’s rundown of top religion news nationally. Ironically, the story came from my home state of Oklahoma, even though I hadn’t heard about it.

Here is the lede from the Tulsa World:

OKLAHOMA CITY — A group advocating for the separation of church and state on Tuesday accused Gov. Kevin Stitt of using his office to promote religion.

Stitt in his official capacity as governor is speaking at 7 p.m. Sept. 22 at Guts Church in Tulsa, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The event uses his title to seek attendees.

In a Monday letter to Stitt, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, based in Madison, Wisconsin, said if Stitt wanted to discuss religion, he should do it as a private citizen and not as governor.

“Using the Office of the Governor to promote a specific religious mission is unconstitutional and sends a direct message to the 30 percent non-Christian adults who you serve that they have the wrong religion and that only your personal god can solve Oklahoma’s problems,” the letter said.

“We are telling Gov. Stitt, as we tell all pious politicians: ‘Get off your knees and get to work,’ ” said Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor. “It’s not OK in Oklahoma or any other state for public officials to misuse their office to promote religion.”

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From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Finding comfort in faith after 9/11, as well as hard questions that never fade away

Looking back at the events on Sept. 11 and its aftermath requires looking back into time and also looking within, deep into the mind, the heart and the soul.

If it’s true that time heals all wounds, 9/11 could be the exception to that adage. As a reporter for the New York Post that day, I was a witness to the deadliest terror attack on American soil.

How did I feel? What did 9/11 do to me? How did it affect the way I did my job? These are all questions I get from students each time I do a talk about the attacks.

Looking back on 18 years ago, I remember feeling angry at God. Had He allowed for this to happen? I yearned for the answer to that question. I looked to my church (I am a Roman Catholic) for adequate ways to quell my inner frustrations. I recall saying a prayer the morning after the attacks on my way to work. It was my way of trying to find some inner peace.

So I am looking back on that stunning day as a journalist and as a Christian.

The entire time, I had a job to do. I had to divide the personal from the professional. Never in my life has that been so hard to do. It wasn’t until three days later, after hearing Billy Graham speak, did I feel more at ease with what had happened. It helped me make sense of the brokenness.

Indeed, one of my first reactions had been, “God, how could you let this happen?” Of course, God didn’t let this happen. What happened that day was pure evil, the work of Islamic militants who had perverted their religion to justify death. It was the good that would later come out of the tragedy, the stories of heroism and sacrifice, that reflected God’s love.

In the weeks that followed, I covered dozens of funerals, primarily those of firefighters. I found those funeral masses both extremely sad and comforting. I participated in them. When I wasn’t taking down notes and interviewing grieving family members, I remember praying along within everyone else at each one of those services. I was grieving along with everyone else.

There was, you see, no way around the faith elements in this event and this story. That was part of the pain, as well as the basic facts.

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