NPR trips on 'evangelical,' while covering big story on converts in Germany

If you were going to pick a major news outlet that was high on the distrust/hate list of cultural conservative in America, it would have to be National Public Radio.

You know the old saying: How can you can tell when a Republican in Washington, D.C., has lost his soul? When the first button on his car radio is set to NPR. Or how about this one: What is the Episcopal Church? It's National Public Radio at prayer.

This is all quite sad, because a decade or so ago NPR's religion-beat work (as opposed to religion-linked coverage by political or cultural pros) was actually very good. If you know the history of the Godbeat there, you'll get my drift.

Anyway, it's interesting to get an email from a GetReligion reader that starts out like this, discussing an NPR feature about Muslims converting to Christianity in Germany:

As someone who tends to listen less and less to NPR, disillusioned with what I perceive as an absurdly left-wing bias in much of their reporting, I was pleasantly surprised by their attempt to cover several sides of the issues.

We will come back to this reader in a bit. But let me start off by saying that I was also impressed at the kinds of voices that were featured in this piece. This is a very complicated and emotional subject, as I stressed in a recent post about this topic that ran with the headline: "Muslims fleeing to Europe: Yes, press can find religion angles in this ongoing tragedy." This NPR report is way better than the norm.

Here is the start of the NPR piece, setting up the major themes:

Chancellor Angela Merkel says Islam is an integral part of modern-day Germany. But that hasn't kept thousands of Muslim asylum seekers from giving up their faith to become Christians in recent years.
The reasons they convert are complicated. Take Daoud Rahimi, for instance. The 20-year-old Afghan, who arrived in Germany a few months ago, was one of dozens of asylum seekers attending a recent baptism class at the evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church in a Berlin suburb.
Like other Afghans seeking refugee status ... Rahimi is quick to affirm his Muslim faith. After some prodding, he nervously admits he might convert to Christianity to avoid deportation, especially now that the German government is negotiating with Kabul to repatriate many Afghan migrants.
"If my country were safe, that wouldn't be a problem," says Rahimi, who is from a Taliban-rife province called Ghazni. "But it isn't, and if I return, my life will be in danger."

The issue raised by the GetReligion reader focuses on the reference to the three-month baptism class at an "evangelical Lutheran Trinity Church in a Berlin suburb."

To be blunt, what does the term "evangelical" mean in modern Germany, as opposed to the United States of America? This comes up again in a crucial passage. The main voice is Trinity's pastor, the Rev. Gottfried Martens, who stressed that he is very careful to make sure converts are sincere about their new faith:

Martens says conversion is not an easy choice for these Muslims, since those who do convert are often ostracized, harassed or worse by relatives, friends and neighbors.
At Trinity, ex-Muslim converts dominate the active congregation of 900. Three-quarters of the congregation are Iranian. Most of the others are Afghan.
During the recent baptism class, Martens explained the meaning of Holy Communion in German, which a congregant translated into Farsi. The pastor said many of his Iranian students are already well versed in Christian practices, thanks to an underground evangelical movement in the Islamic Republic that comes from abroad and takes place in secret in people's homes.
"There is a big awakening going on in Iran at the moment," Martens says. "There are serious estimations going from 500,000 to 1 million secret Christians in Iran and the secret service is trying to find them. And when they find them, of course, they have to flee and so they come here."

There's the word "evangelical" again, only this time in the context of secret mission work done inside of Iran. Would those missionaries there be German "evangelicals" or "evangelicals" in the sense of American, low-church Protestantism?

This was where our GetReligion reader was concerned -- because the Eucharist is a point on which "evangelicals" and the Evagelische Lutherans would almost certainly disagree.

The journalist curiously used *this* moment to emphasize the fact that many of these Iranis were already well-versed in Christian beliefs like this due to a HUGE underground "Evangelical" movement in Iran. This is a fascinating and quite relevant point to make.
But exemplifying it with the pastor's explanation of the *Eucharist* of all things was an odd choice given that this is precisely one of the most obvious things that sets Lutherans (called Evagelische in Germany, along with their Church Body which does not typically carry the name of their 16th century founder) apart from most other protestants.
If indeed most of these Iranis have been catechized by an Evangelical movement, I think they would be quite surprised to hear the pastor state that in fact his Church Body confesses the Eucharist to be the true Body and Blood of Christ. In fact, it is reasonable to suggest that they had never even been exposed to much doctrine of any kind regarding Communion.

In other words, the NPR team did a great job of handling the basic issue in this story -- which is the surge in Muslims converting to Christianity during the current tensions in Europe, caused by the bloodbaths taking place in various parts of the Middle East, broadly defined.

But in this one section, NPR editors -- as we say here at GetReligion -- didn't know what they didn't know.

It is very common on the religion beat to find words that have multiple meanings. The word "charismatic" means radically different things, depending on the pews in which people are sitting. Conservative Baptists and Catholics both use the word "priesthood," as in priesthood of the believer. They would disagree on many details. I could go on and on.

This is why it's crucial for a news organization as influential as NPR to have in-house professionals on the religion beat, veterans who know the vocabulary used in different flocks.

But the key here is to applaud a solid job on the main issue -- the conversion story itself. This is a hot topic in various parts of the world and, for old-school liberals, an important human rights issue. After all, as stated in the 18th article of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the United Nations:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

This is a life and death issue in many parts of the world. There are important stories linked to this human rights issue, and NPR covered the basics. Carry on.

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