'World' of difference when it comes to investigative reporting

In all too many weeks, the Saturday “Beliefs” column provides the only coverage of religion in The New York Times. The influential daily’s Nov. 8 item dealt with World, an unusual Christian magazine because it covers mostly general news rather than just parochial topics.  This biweekly for those wanting “Christian worldview reporting that reinforces their core beliefs” has a conservative slant on politics as well as faith.  A recent GetReligion post by our own tmatt, for example, noted his differences with the journalistic philosophy of World Editor in Chief Marvin Olasky. 

Sadly, investigative reporting has suffered greatly with media downsizing and the Times rightly commends that aspect of World’s work. Religious periodicals generally don’t rake muck, especially about folks sharing their ideology. But World has been willing to bring conservative scandals to the surface, with praiseworthy courage. Apart from that, this magazine is worth watching as an interesting venture in handling the news from an explicitly Christian standpoint.

To get a better sense of World's journalistic M.O., let's examine not some sensational expose but a  more routine article from the current issue, in which staff reporter Emily Belz ably covered ongoing conflicts at secular colleges and universities that apply anti-discrimination codes to end recognition for evangelical Christian clubs.  An attorney criticized such policies Sept. 19 in “Houses of Worship,” the Wall Street Journal’s weekly op-ed equivalent of the Times’s “Beliefs.”  But this important dispute has received minimal mainstream media coverage, showing why outlets like World are valuable players in the media mix. (And then there was a tmatt column on this topic for the Universal syndicate.)

Most of the disputes involve InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, which opens meetings to all comers but says student  leaders should uphold its beliefs, in particular that the Bible opposes same-sex behavior.  (Full disclosure: The Religion Guy was active in InterVarsity during college days.) Sometimes funding from student fees is cut off but the more important losses are meeting space on campus, publicity for events, participation in student activity fairs, and over-all respectability. Some evangelical groups move off campus, some still gather on campus via word of mouth, some negotiate compromises, and some sign non-discrimination pledges and cross their fingers.

One of World’s telling anecdotes involves a chat between InterVarsity executive Greg Jao and a lobbyist for California State University, which in September removed recognition from InterVarsity on all 23 campuses.  When Jao raised a hypothetical case, the lobbyist said it would be wrongful discrimination if a campus group for female survivors of sexual violence barred men! For that matter, would a gay club want to be taken over by militant evangelicals?

As so often with religious magazines, this is  a good story that could be broadened for a more general readership. World doesn’t tell us whether liberal Protestant chaplains favor college administrations or the evangelicals, and why.  What’s the reaction to all this by Catholicism’s Newman Centers, the Muslim Student Association, moderate and liberal Jews in Hillel, or Orthodox Jews in “kiruv” and Chabad groups?

Space permitting, World could have offered more background. This backroom fuss first went public at Tufts University back in 2000. InterVarsity has been a significant force in fostering academically respectable belief and believers. Born at Britain’s University of Cambridge 137 years ago, it reached the U.S. in 1938 with the University of Michigan chapter (which was briefly denied recognition). InterVarsity now has  949  chapters on 616 U.S. campuses. Its periodic conventions are among the biggest of any student organization, drawing 16,000, and with the demise of the Student Volunteer Movement are the major recruiting ground for foreign mission workers. 

The article could also have fleshed out the legal situation. The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 “Christian Legal Society v. Martinez” ruling rejected a related appeal from CLS, which had been banished by the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law. It’s worth explaining why the five majority justices backed college administrators, alongside the stinging contention of the court’s four conservatives that the ruling squelched constitutional freedoms of speech, association, and religion in favor of “prevailing standards of political correctness.”

If the courts are anxious to protect minorities, without question Bible-toting, prayerful evangelicals are very much a minority group on today’s campuses. There is a story in there and it isn't over yet.

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