With its story this week on beards in Texas prisons, The Dallas Morning News does a nice bit of foreshadowing.
Both the "For God's sake" headline and the "come-to-Jesus" lede provide a strong hint of the level of seriousness with which the Texas newspaper will treat the religion content.
In other words, not seriously at all.
Let's start at the top:
AUSTIN — Last year, Mario Garcia had a come-to-Jesus moment. The 29-year-old father of six, wanted on a domestic violence charge, flipped his truck as he was trying to outrun police. He lost his freedom. Again.
Last week, sitting in a gymnasium at the Travis State Jail, a large silver cross dangling over his white prison uniform, Garcia said he considers his second prison stint a blessing.
“It’s made me slow down and opened my eyes,” he said. “Faith is a major factor in my life right now.”
Perhaps the Morning News intended that "come-to-Jesus" opening to be clever rather than flippant and cliché, but the newspaper never gets around to describing how Garcia came to faith.
Was he a Prodigal Son who returned to the religion of his youth? Or did he find Jesus behind bars? This shallow report seems oblivious to such obvious questions.
The news peg is, of course, tied to that U.S. Supreme Court ruling on prison beards earlier this year:
The Morning News notes:
In prison, there are few ways for inmates to express their religious convictions through appearance. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice has strict grooming standards that prison officials say are needed to prevent security problems.
But starting this month, Garcia or any other Texas inmate who wants to grow a beard as an outward reflection of faith will be allowed to do so for the first time. Texas will join more than 40 other states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons in allowing beards. The policy change follows a January ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, which said inmates have a right to exercise their faith by growing facial hair.
The Supreme Court case, as you may recall, involved an inmate who argued in court papers that Muslims are commanded to "cut the mustaches short and leave the beard."
But in the case of the Texas inmate who had the "come-to-Jesus" moment, what's the religious reason for the beard?:
Garcia and Joshua Large, another inmate who identifies himself as a Christian, said a half-inch beard would satisfy their desire to display their religious devotion. As of last Wednesday, they were the only two men at the 1,000-bed Travis State Jail, on the outskirts of Austin, who had sought permission to grow a beard. (Nearly 60 percent of the 148,000 state prison inmates say they’re Christians.)
Remarkably, that's the full extent of the Morning News' reporting on the prisoners' rationale for the beards.
Are these inmates truly devoted Christians? Or is the religious claim a convenient means by which to force prison officials to allow them to grow beards? This story gives no clues to help readers answer those questions.
Christianity Today's Ted Olsen had a great piece in 2013 on "The Wars Over Christian Beards":
But the Dallas newspaper abstains from any such historical insight.
I'm not suggesting that the Morning News can — or should — attempt to judge anyone's heart or determine the authenticity of jailhouse religion.
But the newspaper could report on whether either inmate has a history of attending worship services or Bible studies behind bars. The newspaper could attempt to interview a Christian leader with whom the inmates have a relationship. The newspaper could ask that leader about the religious basis, if any, for beards.
Instead, the Morning News settles for a bald "come-to-Jesus" moment that serves neither its readers nor its own reputation for serious journalism.