Since starting to write for GetReligion last year, I've become increasingly aware that there are outposts in American religious life that rarely get much, if any attention from the mainstream media. One of these (can you say Eckhart Tolle, anyone?) is New Age spirituality -- and beliefs that syncretize New Age beliefs with Christian or Jewish practices.
Another place where I think the media falls down is in covering the violent fringe of American religious life -- oftimes, journos chose to see participants as novelty items rather than as part and parcel of an American radical tradition (the abolitionist John Brown being one famous example). It appears, from what has been written about him, and by his own flair for self-advertisment, that Tempe, AZ, pastor Steve Anderson of Faithful Word Baptist Church falls into that category. Only instead of guns and swords, he's using YouTube to promote his ideas.
It's possible that you haven't heard of Anderson, who has told his congregants that he prays for President Barack Obama's death. He's gotten local newspaper coverage, national cable coverage, and lots of heat in the predictable right/leftwing blogosphere. Additionally, he has also drawn the attention of the Secret Service.
So how does one cover Anderson and his message without giving him a spotlight and a forum? Should the media be doing it at all? These are legitimate questions at any time, but particularly appropriate now. I can think of several good reasons for ignoring the publicity-loving preacher -- and several others for covering his story.
On the negative side -- he's a 'hater.' When there are so many principled and nonviolent conservative voices out there, why pick up on Anderson's rant? And another question -- does doing so encourage others with similar opinion to start expressing them in public arenas?
But what about the idea that Anderson may, in fact, represent the views of a more substantial portion of the American population than we might think? Anger and distress over the President's abortion stance runs deep -- and while most folk who term themselves Christians aren't likely to pray for Obama's death, Anderson claims his beliefs are motivated in part by his anti-abortion point-of-view. Can a journalist put Anderson in context without giving his viewpoint a blessing? Then, of course, there is the idea that it is helpful, as with pornography, for readers to understand that free speech embraces speech they might not like.
If you find yourself, albeit reluctantly, on the "aye" side, then ask yourself: what's the appropriate way to write about preacher Anderson? Here, direct from Fox, is a good example of how not to do it:
A Phoenix-area pastor has started to draw protesters to his congregation after he delivered a sermon titled, "Why I Hate Barack Obama," and told his parishioners that he prays for President Obama's death.
Pastor Steven Anderson stood by his sermon in an interview with MyFOXPhoenix, which reports that the pastor continues to encourage his parishioners to join him in praying for the president's death.
"I hope that God strikes Barack Obama with brain cancer so he can die like Ted Kennedy and I hope it happens today," he told MyFOXPhoenix on Sunday. He called his message "spiritual warfare" and said he does not condone killing.
But a small crowd of protesters gathered around his church Sunday, calling Anderson's words "incomprehensible." And MyFOXPhoenix reported that the sermon, which has drawn widespread attention, led to death threats against the pastor.
Now, why on earth would anyone want to protest such a venomous message? You are not going to find out here -- this piece comes close to merely giving the pastor a grandstand from which to, excuse me, pontificate. Memo to Fox writer -- find a protester who really has something to say in opposition to Anderson. There's a lot that can be said -- and surely someone out there to say it.
More to the point of this blog -- how come the author didn't ask Anderson what he meant by "spiritual warfare?" I've heard of prayer as a way of contending with evil, but I've never heard it applied to wishing someone dead. And what of this comparison? "The last time fierce opposition to Obama's abortion position drew widespread attention was when Obama delivered the commencement address at the University of Notre Dame."
Sure, let's compare a death wish to principled opposition from some of the nation's top Catholic clerics and academics. But you know these abortion opponents, they are all alike.
The linked story at the bottom is marginally better, but not a whole lot.
If you want to see a story with more context, and a reality check, read this one from Arizona's ABC15.com. As well as having a link to Anderson's sermon, the story tells readers something about the parishioners at his church. And instead of focusing on Anderson, the story's lede mentions that the Secret Service is aware of the pastor, and is taking appropriate action, whatever that turns out to be. While it's by no means perfect, at least it has a little gravitas -- worthy of a situation in which guns, politics, and religion form a very combustible mixture. If media outlets are going to write about fringers, at least don't let them parade through the pages, or on the air, or in the cable news, virtually alone.
Video: You may not be of the same mind as Rick Sanchez, or you may agree totally. His Anderson videos are worth viewing whether you approve of his opinions or not.