Friday Five: An abusive cult, Top 10 religion stories of 2017, guns in churches and more

Friday Five: An abusive cult, Top 10 religion stories of 2017, guns in churches and more

Today's Friday Five will be a Roy Moore-free (and Doug Jones-free) zone.

Hey, it's nothing personal (we've got posts here, here, here and here if you want to read more about this week's big politics-and-religion news). Plus, my inside sources tell me a must-listen-to GetReligion podcast on the subject is coming real soon.

But for a twist, the "Five" will focus on subjects besides "Sweet Home Alabama" (the above video notwithstanding).

Here goes:

1. Religion story of the week: The Associated Press published another riveting installment in its ongoing investigation of North Carolina-based Word of Faith Fellowship. Earlier this year, we called attention to this "important AP investigation on physical and sexual abuse" at that church. The latest story by Mitch Weiss and Holbook Mohr — "‘Nobody saved us’: Man describes childhood in abusive ‘cult’" — is again must reading.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: I mentioned the upcoming podcast. But if you missed last week's podcast ("Cakeshop question: Is 'tolerance' a bad word in America today?"), you can listen to it now. Terry Mattingly's post tied to the podcast — "Masterpiece Cakeshop waiting game: Are the bakers of all 'offensive' cakes created equal?" — was the No. 1 most-read post of the last week.

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CNN visits eastern Kentucky women, but ignores how majority feels about abortion, etc.

CNN visits eastern Kentucky women, but ignores how majority feels about abortion, etc.

Not long ago, when I was doing research in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee for my new book on young Pentecostal serpent handlers, some of us -- by which I mean people involved in local churches and local life -- grew to despise what I call journalistic carpetbaggers.

Those are the folks from the big city who show up in Fly-Over Land to get at the real truth about those denizens of America’s hinterlands they believe no other journalist has uncovered. They wouldn’t dream of leaving their enclaves inside the Beltway or –- in this case the Outer Perimeter of Atlanta -- to actually live among the unwashed, but they do like jetting in every so often to report on the Truth That Is Out There Among The Simple People.

You can probably guess where I’m going with CNN’s latest: “Forget Abortion: What women in Appalachian Kentucky really want.”

I’ll tell you up front what that is: They want birth control and lots of it. Oh, and there's no need to talk to Kentucky women who oppose abortion. They don't exist.

The story begins here:

Pikeville, Kentucky (CNN) Perhaps it was the abstinence pledge she felt forced to sign or the promise ring she was told to slip on her finger. But from the moment Cheryl became sexually active, she felt dirty.
Then, three boys raped her, reducing her self-image to mud.
She didn't dare tell anyone or seek help. Growing up in rural eastern Kentucky, she'd been raised by drug addicts who'd lost the family home and lived in a place, she says, where there was "nothing left to do but do each other."

I’ll agree that rural eastern Kentucky (I also biked through the area -– places like Elkhorn City, Pippa Passes and Hazard -- many years ago during a trip from Washington DC to Lexington, Ky.), is often closer to being Meth Alley rather than a garden spot. That region of the country appears atop all the bad lists: joblessness, poverty, absenteeism, life expectancy and female smoking during pregnancy.

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Holy ghosts in Ohio: Cincinnati Enquirer reports on debate over aborting Down syndrome babies

Holy ghosts in Ohio: Cincinnati Enquirer reports on debate over aborting Down syndrome babies

So often at GetReligion — here, here, here, here and here, for example — we call attention to the mainstream news media's rampant bias in coverage of the abortion issue.

I'm referring, of course, to the longstanding and indisputable problem of news stories heavily favoring the pro-choice side.

But guess what!?

This isn't going to be one of those posts.

In fact, I'm generally impressed with the balanced, factual nature of the Cincinnati Enquirer's story on a Down syndrome abortion ban going to Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the former moderate Republican presidential candidate.

I do think, however, that the piece is haunted by ghosts. As regular readers know, we refer to them as "holy ghosts." More on that God-sized hole in the Enquirer's otherwise fine report in a moment.

But first, the compelling lede:

COLUMBUS — When a mother receives the news that her child will be born with Down syndrome, should she have the choice to obtain an abortion?
Ohio's GOP-controlled Legislature says "no." Lawmakers, with a 20-12 vote in the Ohio Senate, sent a bill to Gov. John Kasich that would penalize doctors who perform abortions after a fetal diagnosis of Down syndrome. Kasich said in 2015 that he would sign such a bill. 
The proposed law has sparked division within the Down syndrome community.

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Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Concerning Jerusalem, Donald Trump, Arab Christian anger and, yes, American evangelicals

Trust me when I say that I understand why so many Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East are frustrated with America, and American evangelicals in particular, when it comes to the complex and painful status of Jerusalem.

As I have mentioned several times here at GetReligion, when I converted to Eastern Orthodoxy two decades ago my family became part of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese -- which is closely tied to the ancient Orthodox flock based in Damascus. Then, from 2001-2005 (including 9/11), we were active in a West Palm Beach, Fla., parish that was primarily made up of families with ties to Syria, Lebanon and, yes, Israel and the West Bank.

I will not try to sum up their lives and viewpoints in a few lines. Suffice it to say, they struggled to understand why so many American Christians have little or no interest in the daily lives and realities of Christians whose Holy Land roots go back to Pentecost.

Thus, I am thankful that the Washington Post international desk has updated a familiar, yet still urgent, news topic as we get closer to the Christmas season. The hook, of course, is the announcement by President Donald Trump about the status of the U.S. embassy in Israel. The headline: "Trump plan to move U.S. embassy to Jerusalem angers Middle East Christians."

The overture is familiar, yet sadly newsy:

JERUSALEM -- Some of the festive cheer was missing this weekend at a public Christmas tree lighting near the site where Christians believe an angel proclaimed Christ’s birth to local shepherds. 
“Our oppressors have decided to deprive us from the joy of Christmas,” Patriarch Michel Sabbah, the former archbishop and Latin patriarch of Jerusalem, told the crowd in the town of Beit Sahour in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. “Mr. Trump told us clearly Jerusalem is not yours.”
The Trump administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. Embassy there has provoked widespread opposition among Christians across the Middle East. When Vice President Pence arrives next week on a trip touted as a chance to check on the region’s persecuted Christians, he will be facing an awkward backlash.

Right there, you see, is the story that has loomed in the background for decades.

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Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Bring in the Millennials, Kansas City Star says of churches (But what about old timers?)

Props are due to the Kansas City Star for noticing that some churches in its area are attracting, and not, apparently, repelling, the young cohort of worshipers that could be grouped under the banner of "millennial."

Indeed, the message is up front in the story's headline: "Bucking a trend, these churches figured out how to bring millennials back to worship."

Once a reader gets past a nice setup anecdote about one of the newly booming congregations, we get these salient points:

In 2015, a wide-ranging Pew Research Center study concluded that America was becoming less religious due in part to millennials distancing themselves from organized religion. Only 27 percent of Americans born between 1981 and 1996, the study found, regularly attend weekly services.
As a result, some area churches and synagogues have created special programs that cater to younger members.
But a handful, most notably, perhaps, City of Truth on the East Side and The Cause on the West Plaza, now cater almost exclusively to millennials.

This is a solid, well-reported story in which I can find few flaws to note. The Star is to be congratulated for this kind of coverage. Hence, you won't find any "big" journalism problems highlighted in this blog post.

So why write this post? As tmatt would say, "Hold that thought."

As readers find out from the story, City of Truth serves a largely African-American congregation, while The Cause's members are mostly white. The services times on Sundays may differ, but they apparently remain one of the most segregated hours in America, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., once observed.

Such changes did not come without a price for City of Truth, as the story explains:

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Dear reporters: Please read the New Yorker essay about evangelical realities in Alabama

Dear reporters: Please read the New Yorker essay about evangelical realities in Alabama

Now, here is a sentence that I didn't expect to write this week.

Here goes. If you really want to understand what has been going on in the hearts and minds of many evangelical voters in Alabama, then you really need to grab (digitally speaking, perhaps) a copy of The New Yorker. To be specific, you need to read a Benjamin Wallace-Wells piece with this headline: "Roy Moore and the Invisible Religious Right."

Trigger warning: If you are the kind of person whose worldview includes simplistic stereotypes of evangelical Protestants, especially white evangelicals, you may not want to read that piece.

Let's start with this passage, which comes right after a discussion of a campaign letter that falsely claimed to contain an up-to-date list of pastors backing Roy Moore. This is long, but essential: 

A few days ago, I started calling around Alabama, trying to track down the rest of the pastors who had been listed on Kayla Moore’s letter. Some of them were easy to find, but others were elusive. I tried William Green, at the Fresh Anointing House of Worship, in Montgomery. A receptionist told me that she had never heard of Green. I tried Steve Sanders, at the Victory Baptist Church, in Millbrook. The current pastor told me that Sanders retired two years ago. I did not reach Earl Wise, also of Millbrook, but the Boston Globe did, and, though he still emphatically supported Moore, he had also left the pastoral life and was working as a real-estate agent.
Once you got beyond the ghosts and the real-estate agents, what was most notable about the pastors on Moore’s list was their obscurity. I found a list of the pastors of the thirty-six largest churches in Alabama, assembled this summer by the Web site of the Birmingham News; no pastor on that list appeared on Moore’s. I called leaders within the deeply conservative Southern Baptist Church -- the largest denomination in Alabama and, for decades, the core of the religious right -- and was told that not a single affiliated Southern Baptist pastor in the state was openly allied with Moore. The churches that appeared on Moore’s list tended to be tiny and situated in small towns, and some of the pastors on it held subsidiary roles within their churches.

Yes, I saw the word "openly." However, after reading the article this is how I would summarize the different kinds of evangelicals who were involved in this Alabama train wreck. Friends and neighbors, we are not talking about a monolith.

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New York Times trips on pope's 'Lord's Prayer' story, but Houston Chronicle recovers

New York Times trips on pope's 'Lord's Prayer' story, but Houston Chronicle recovers

If it is possible to be simultaneously perceptive and as dense as odium, which I believe is the most dense material on the planet, then The New York Times is our winner.

Someone decided to head a report on something Pope Francis is thinking about in this manner: "Lost in Translation? Pope Ponders an Update to Lord’s Prayer." Yes, the word "update" appears in the first paragraph, too, but I wonder if it's the right word to use.

More on that in just a moment. Meanwhile, take in the opening of this story:

ROME -- It has been a question of theological debate and liturgical interpretation for years, and now Pope Francis has joined the discussion: Does the Lord’s Prayer, Christendom’s resonant petition to the Almighty, need an update?
In a new television interview, Pope Francis said the common rendering of one line in the prayer -- “lead us not into temptation” -- was “not a good translation” from ancient texts. “Do not let us fall into temptation,” he suggested, might be better because God does not lead people into temptation; Satan does.
“A father doesn’t do that,” the pope said. “He helps you get up right away. What induces into temptation is Satan.”
In essence, the pope said, the prayer, from the Book of Matthew, is asking God, “When Satan leads us into temptation, You please, give me a hand.”

My first journalism problem is that word "update." We are, after all, talking about the meaning of words taken from scripture, words ascribed to Jesus of Nazareth, no less. I'm not at all certain the Supreme Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church is into "updating" Scripture.

It may seem like a minor point, but words do matter. What I believe the pope is suggesting is perhaps a revised translation, but that's not an update, is it? Is the actual issue a matter of translation?

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So, how did believers vote in Alabama? Only white evangelicals were tagged in exit polls

So, how did believers vote in Alabama? Only white evangelicals were tagged in exit polls

So, how did the believers vote in Alabama?

Did the much-maligned evangelical Protestants, who’ve been criticized by lots of folks for helping elect President Donald Trump a year ago, vote in similarly large numbers for Judge Moore?

The short answer is yes. Journalists were all over that question.

As for other religious groups (Catholics, non-evangelical Protestants, Jews, etc.), no one seemed to be asking them how they voted, although they do exist in the Deep South. And what about African-American and Latino evangelicals?

Al.com, also known as The Birmingham News, didn’t split up the results as far as I could find. But it did run the full Scripture-laden quote that Moore gave late Tuesday evening:

"We also know God is always in control," Moore said. "One of the problems with this campaign is we've been painted in an unfavorable and unfaithful light. We've been in a hole, if you will. It reminds me of a passage in Psalm 40."
Moore then quoted the Scripture.
"'I waited patiently for the Lord' -- and that's what we've got to do," Moore said before resuming, "he climbed to me and heard my cry and brought us up also out of the horrible pit, out of the miry clay and set my feet on the rock and established my goings. And put a new song in our mouth, even praise unto our God: many shall see it and fear it and be moved by that.
"That's what we've got to do is wait on God and let this process play out. The votes are still coming in. We're looking at that."

As it turned out, even the Bible section of that speech was a bit off, as one outspoken evangelical noted:

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Yes, we read the Washington Post story on evangelical students who want to be journalists

Yes, we read the Washington Post story on evangelical students who want to be journalists

For those who have asked, yes, your GetReligionistas read that recent Washington Post story on Liberty University students who want to be journalists.

Spoiler alert: It's a positive portrayal (verging on puff piece) of these evangelical Christian students.

As a journalism graduate of a Christian university, however, I'm not sure this coverage does much to bolster the cause of conservative believers who are training for news careers. 

Maybe it's just me, but the students come across as more interested in Christian advocacy than impartial journalism: 

LYNCHBURG, Va. — What do you do when everyone around you thinks the media is “fake news” — and you want to work for the media?
That’s the question professor Amy Bonebright needs to help her students answer. This is Liberty University, the world’s largest evangelical Christian school. Most students come from politically and religiously conservative families and churches inclined not to trust the news — and, indeed, the president of the university is Jerry Falwell Jr., a fervent advocate for President Trump, who throws around the term “fakenews” to refer to most mainstream media reporting.
So when Bonebright teaches a room full of aspiring reporters in her “Community Journalism” class, she needs to teach them more than just how to craft a lede and conduct an interview. “Now, everyone’s down on the media,” she says to her class. “Maybe you go home over break and see your parents’ friends. And they say, ‘Remind me what you’re studying.’”
A nervous giggle rises from many of the students. They have had that conversation before.

And the bottom line:

For these college students, the answer to that question is deeply rooted in their faith. Because while they might not always see the news media as truthful, they do believe in the truth of the gospel — and they think that’s a principle they can apply in the newsroom just as they do in the pews.
“As Christians, we believe in truth,” senior Timothy Cockes raises his hand to say. “Christians actually should be the best journalists there are, because we believe there is truth out there.”

Read the whole piece, and you learn that many of the students don't even want to be journalists at all — they want to work in public relations as writers for foreign missionaries. What!?

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