Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

Required reading: The National Catholic Reporter in the age of Pope Francis

If we have learned anything from the clergy sex-abuse scandals that plagued the Catholic church last year — and continue to do so in the form of new revelations — was how important the religious press (especially the voices on the more conservative end of the spectrum) have tried to point out the failings of Pope Francis.

Not to be outdone, the prevailing Catholic press on the doctrinal left continues to exert a lot of influence in church politics. In other words, publications on the left are still required reading not just for Catholics, but anyone who writes about the church for mainstream news outlets.

Take the National Catholic Reporter.

Founded in 1964 (just five years after the Second Vatican Council dramatically changed the church), its aim was to bring the professional standards of secular news reporting to the press that covers Catholic news and issues. That’s all commendable — until one looks at the consistently progressive positions the bi-weekly newspaper (and its website) has espoused at a time when the church is increasingly split between liberals and conservatives.

But here is the twist. In the wake of the crises, people of faith have to deal with why they continue to identify as Catholic and what that means to them. For the first time in modern history, the pontiff’s progressive nature matches what the NCR has championed for years.

If the Catholic voices on the conservative spectrum are getting greater attention at this time, it is also worth noting that several journalistic pillars of the religious left continue to set the agenda for millions of Catholics. That includes clergy and priests as well as the laity and, by extension, politicians.

NCR has won journalistic accolades from the Catholic Press Association (of which I am a proud member) and remains one of the most important voices out there. It isn’t afraid to take on church doctrine and traditional beliefs, becoming a lightening rod for those on the right. For example, the bi-weekly newspaper’s position, in a 2014 editorial, said climate change is the most-important pro-life issue facing society. The paper is anti-Donald Trump and not shy about pointing the finger at St. Pope John Paul II’s inaction when faced with past clergy sex-abuse allegations.

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Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

Washington Post editors still don't understand that private schools -- left and right -- have doctrines

United Methodists are, of course, getting ready for their extraordinary global conference next month in which they will try to decide if the Bible and 2,000 years of Christian doctrine have anything definitive to say about marriage and sex.

One powerful pack of lobbyists on the doctrinal left — the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the United Methodist Church — have come out swinging, urging the conference to allow “full inclusion” for all in the denomination’s life and work, no matter what their “gender identity” or “sexual orientation.”

It’s safe to say that leaders of these 93 schools — including universities such as Emory, American, Duke, Syracuse and SMU — have created campus policies that encourage or require students, faculty and staff to embrace this modernized approach to moral theology.

That’s fine, as long as these schools are very up-front about the doctrines that define life in their private associations. Private schools on the left and right are allowed to do that. (Click here for a column that I wrote several years ago about efforts at Vanderbilt University to require on-campus ministries to toe the evolving LGBTQ line: “The new campus orthodoxy that forbids most old orthodoxies.”)

Once again let me stress: Private schools on the left and right have a First Amendment right (think freedom of association) to defend the doctrines that define campus life.

Some journalists continue to struggle with this First Amendment concept, leading to lots of GetReligion posts trying to explain the law and history behind “lifestyle” and doctrinal covenants at private schools.

For a perfect example of this problem, see the new Washington Post report with this headline: “The school that hired Karen Pence requires applicants to disavow gay marriage, trans identity.” Here is the lengthy, but essential, overture to this story.

The school where Vice President Pence’s wife, Karen, has accepted a part-time job teaching art requires potential employees to affirm certain religious beliefs that seek to exclude homosexual and transgender applicants, including that marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

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China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

China's 'social credit' system: 'Hunger Games,' Big Brother or the book of Revelation?

A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a piece on Vice.com about China’s social credit system, a mix of “Brave New World,” “The Hunger Games” and Revelation 13:16-17.

Do you think the Chinese government would use this system to punish religious believers? We will come back to that angle.

For those of you not familiar with end-of-the-New Testament prophecy, the latter concerns a “mark” (barcode?) one must have to do any financial transactions worldwide. It all sounded like something out of the 22nd century until I began reading about China’s creepy citizen tracking system.

A short piece at Vice started thus:

RONGCHENG, China — Here and in other cities across China, monitors have been tracking people's behaviors — good and bad — for the country's new Social Credit System. It’s kind of like the American credit score system, except it tracks far more than financial transactions.

And the consequences can be pretty serious.

Part of the system is a neighbor watch program that's being piloted across the country where designated watchers are paid to record people's behaviors that factor into their social credit score. Zhou Aini, for one, gets paid $50 USD a month to watch her neighbors as an "information collector." She records observations in a notebook and then shares it with a local government office that determines the results.

A high score could bring you lower interest loans and discounted rent and utility bills, but if your score is low, you can be subjected to public shaming or even banned from certain kinds of travel. Basically, your life gets harder.

While the score is not exactly the biochip everyone must have embedded in their hand or forehead mentioned in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” novels, it is unsettling.

China’s persecution of its Muslim, Falun Gong and Christian minorities is getting worse by the day, so you can guess which groups would immediately suffer losses of their social credit. Today they might not be able to buy tickets for a plane flight. Tomorrow they may not be able to buy food.

Various media have been covering this trend for the past year. However, when it comes to religion, I haven’t seen much connecting of the dots.

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'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

'Born-again' baseball star's arrest on child sexual assault charge raises a journalistic question

"This is truly, truly an awful story to report,” tweeted a Dallas Morning News sportswriter involved in the coverage of a child sexual abuse charge against former baseball star John Wetteland.

Actually, it’s beyond awful.

It’s sickening, especially for a diehard Texas Rangers fan like myself who remembers cheering for Wetteland and appreciating his focus on his Christian faith.

According to the Dallas newspaper, the former closer is accused of sexually abusing a young child:

Wetteland, 52, is accused of continuous sexual abuse of a child under the age of 14, according to Denton County jail records. The Trophy Club resident posted $25,000 bond and was released from custody the same day as his arrest.

He had forced a young relative to perform a sex act on him, according to the arrest warrant affidavit, beginning in 2004 when the child was just four years old.

The abuse occurred at Wetteland's home in Bartonville, the affidavit stated. It happened twice more over a two-year period, the victim said.

And sadly, there is a strong and absolutely relevant religion angle as Wetteland — who was the 1996 World Series MVP while pitching for the New York Yankees — is well-known for touting his Christian beliefs.

“Wetteland Is Just a Closer Who Walks With the Lord,” declared a 1995 New York Times sports column.

That column opened this way:

John Wetteland is drinking coffee from a large mug with the words "Jesus Lives" emblazoned across it in big, black letters. He grins and nods when someone comments on the mug. His Bible is resting on a shelf in his locker and he has a personal computer at his disposal so he can retrieve morning devotionals from an on-line program and pray before the Yankees begin another day of baseball.

"I honestly try and walk with Jesus Christ every day," he said, describing his most important relationship, more important than his relationship with his wife.

Obviously, the facts of the criminal case are the most important element of the news reports on Wetteland’s arrest.

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CNN on Tulsi Gabbard: Some candidates' LGBTQ policy ghosts are more relevant than others

CNN on Tulsi Gabbard: Some candidates' LGBTQ policy ghosts are more relevant than others

It’s pretty easy to see where the Rep. Tulsi Gabbard story is going for the new CNN.

I think the heart of the story can be expressed this way: Are you now, or have you ever been a … conservative Democrat (or related, by blood, to one)?

Gabbard recently declared that she is one of the legions of Democrats who plan to seek the party’s presidential nomination. She is the first Hindu (a somewhat controversial convert, no less) to take that step.

However, she also created a mini-media storm with an op-ed in The Hill in which (trigger warning) she took an old-school liberal stand on a key religious liberty issue, affirming Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, which bans any form of “religious test” for those seeking public office.

Yes, we’re talking about the Knights of Columbus wars. Gabbard wrote:

While I oppose the nomination of Brian Buescher to the U.S. District Court in Nebraska, I stand strongly against those who are fomenting religious bigotry, citing as disqualifiers Buescher’s Catholicism and his affiliation with the Knights of Columbus. If Buescher is “unqualified” because of his Catholicism and affiliation with the Knights of Columbus, then President John F. Kennedy, and the 'liberal lion of the Senate' Ted Kennedy would have been “unqualified” for the same reasons.

Wait for it. Here is the language that probably put a millstone around her neck.

No American should be told that his or her public service is unwelcome because “the dogma lives loudly within you” as Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said to Amy Coney Barrett during her confirmation hearings in 2017 to serve as U.S. Circuit Court judge in the 7th Circuit. …

The party that worked so hard to convince people that Catholics and Knights of Columbus like Al Smith and John F. Kennedy could be both good Catholics and good public servants shows an alarming disregard of its own history in making such attacks today.

We must call this out for what it is – religious bigotry.

The reactions were fierce, to say the least.

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Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

It seems that hardly a week goes by without China ramping up its campaign to mold domestic religious expression to its liking, and with some member of the international media elite taking a hard look at Beijing’s anti-religion policies.

Last week, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper took on the task. It’s grade? Let’s just say it achieved less than a perfect score. I’ll get to the widely circulated story’s (online, that is) limitations in a moment. But first let’s give it what praise it also deserves.

The piece focused on China’s Christians, or more accurately, on China’s Protestant Christians.

In this regard, the story was passable. It included the current talk out of China that the government intends to rewrite the Bible — though just which version is left unnamed — to suit its propaganda purposes. (In September, the online, evangelical website the Christian Post reported that both testaments were to be reworked to the government's liking, meaning more in line with its policies.)

Still, any story that draws attention to China’s hyper-paranoid approach toward religious expression is, in my book, a good thing, despite its shortcomings.

Only by hammering the point home again and again can outside pressure be brought to bear on Beijing’s policies, if, in fact, that’s even currently possible. (For example, don't expect President Donald Trump to ratchet up such pressure; for him and most world leaders relations with China are all about trade and financial investment).

The Guardian story led with the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church, one of China’s so-called “underground,” or non-government approved, congregations. Here’s the story’s top.

In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”

Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December.

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Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

Sign of the times? Major Southern Baptist figure dies and gets zero mainstream news coverage

At one time, the Rev. Jimmy Allen was a major figure in Southern Baptist circles.

In 2004, when I did a package on the 25th anniversary of that denomination’s conservative takeover — or “take back,” depending on one’s perspective — I interviewed Allen.

In fact, my main story on that anniversary opened with Allen:

HOUSTON — Back in 1979, the Rev. Jimmy Allen thought the highlight of the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual meeting would be a giant rally at the Astrodome featuring the Rev. Billy Graham.

Instead, Allen and other moderate leaders in the nation’s largest Protestant denomination were caught by surprise as conservatives who had attacked the denomination’s seminaries as “hotbeds of liberalism” flocked to the meeting.

There, they succeeded in electing a denominational president, the Rev. Adrian Rogers of Tennessee, who shared their view of biblical inerrancy – meaning that the Bible is without error in any way, including historical details.

Some thought the vote was just a momentary change in direction, but Rogers’ election turned out be a watershed moment for the denomination. 

Last week, Allen died at age 91 — and the world of Baptist media took notice.

The mainstream press? Not so much. More on that in a moment.

This was the lede from Bob Allen of Baptist News Global:

Jimmy R. Allen, the last moderate president of the Southern Baptist Convention and executive director emeritus of the New Baptist Covenant, died early Jan. 8 at Southeast Georgia Health System in Brunswick, Georgia.

His pastor, Tony Lankford of First Baptist Church of St. Simons Island, said the 91-year-old had been in failing health. …

Named in 1999 one of the most influential Baptists of the 20th century, Allen served as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 1978 and 1979, the two years before conservatives took over control of the nation’s largest Protestant body in a move they called the “conservative resurgence.”

In 1990 he presided over the Consultation of Concerned Baptists in Atlanta, forerunner to the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship. In 2008 he agreed to become program chair and coordinator for the New Baptist Covenant, a pan-Baptist gathering promoting racial unity spearheaded by former President Jimmy Carter.

In 1995 Allen wrote the book Burden of a Secret, a personal account of his family’s battle with AIDS.

David Roach of the SBC’s official Baptist Press wrote this:

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Forget Tim Tebow for a moment: Why not chase a religion ghost or two linked to his fiancée?

Forget Tim Tebow for a moment: Why not chase a religion ghost or two linked to his fiancée?

Yes, we saw the snarky Deadspin headline about You Know Who getting engaged.

You know, the headline that proclaimed: “Tim Tebow To Have Sex Soon.”

The only shock there was that The New York Post didn’t have something wild to compete with it. However, the tabloid’s short story about the engagement of Tebow and Demi-Leigh Nel-Peters, a South Africa native who was Miss Universe in 2017, did feature the following essential information at the very end.

Tebow confirmed his relationship with Nel-Peters in July.

“She is a really special girl and I am very lucky and blessed for her coming into my life,” he told ESPN over the summer. “I am usually very private with these things but I am very thankful.”

Tebow, a devout Christian, has long planned to remain a virgin until marriage.

I do remember reading a thing or two about that in the past.

However, let’s pause for a moment. I want you to try to forget Tebow. Just push that musclebound ESPN commentator, baseball player and evangelical philanthropist off to the side, for a minute.

I’m trying to find out some additional information about Nel-Peters. I think it’s safe to assume that Christian faith may have had something to do with their relationship, but I am having trouble finding out any information about that angle of this story.

For example: See this hollow USA Today mini-feature. Or this faith-free offering from ESPN, Tebow’s own home in the world of sports broadcasting.

Now, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., noted that the People magazine exclusive on the engagement did contain a bite of information about religious faith. Describing his future wife, Tebow said:

“They have to really love God,” he continued. “My faith is important to me — it’s the most important thing — and I need to be with someone who also shares that faith.”

Tebow tells PEOPLE, now, that Nel-Peters is exactly what he has been looking for.

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Arguing in Anchorage: Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

Arguing in Anchorage:  Christian women's shelter feuds with transgender woman

It’s been a very cold January in Alaska with temps in the -30s, -40s and even -50s in the central part of the state. It’s a tad warmer further to the south in Anchorage, but it’s still the kind of weather people can freeze to death in. That’s why homeless shelters are so important there.

But there’s something happening in Anchorage now that would give any director of a faith-based and feed-the-hungry shelter the willies. Imagine that your women’s only shelter includes a lot of women who’ve been raped or sexually molested in some way.

Then someone who is biologically a man — with an extensive criminal record — wants to share their sleeping space. And when the Associated Press rushes in to cover it, they concentrate not on the issues at hand but on how allegedly right-wing one of the legal organizations representing the shelter is. Read the following:

A conservative Christian law firm that has pushed religious issues in multiple states urged a U.S. judge on Friday to block Alaska’s largest city from requiring a faith-based women’s shelter to accept transgender women.

Alliance Defending Freedom has sued the city of Anchorage to stop it from applying a gender identity law to the Hope Center shelter, which denied entry to a transgender woman last year. The lawsuit says homeless shelters are exempt from the local law and that constitutional principles of privacy and religious freedom are at stake.

Alliance attorney Ryan Tucker said many women at the shelter are survivors of violence and allowing biological men would be highly traumatic for them. He told U.S. District Judge Sharon Gleason that women have told shelter officials that if biological men are allowed to spend the night alongside them, "they would rather sleep in the woods," even in extreme cold like the city has experienced this week with temperatures hovering around zero.

The article appeared in the Anchorage Daily News, where (as I’m writing this) it has warmed up to 9 degrees. January nights are chilly up there.

Tucker said biological men are free to use the shelter during the day, adding there are other shelters in the city where men can sleep.

Ryan Stuart, an assistant municipal attorney, countered that the preliminary injunction sought by plaintiffs was premature because an investigation by the Anchorage Equal Rights Commission had not been concluded, largely because of the shelter's noncooperation. The investigation is on hold.

We learn further down that this transgender woman tried to get admitted to this shelter in January 2018 and has been giving them grief ever since.

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