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BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

BuzzFeed moves in to fix up all those happy tales about Magnolia folks and their 'new' Waco

Once upon a time, I was an expert on life in Waco, Texas. I spent six years there in the 1970s — doing two degrees at Baylor University — and have had family ties to Jerusalem on the Brazos for decades, some of which are as strong than ever.

The Waco I knew didn’t have lots of civic pride. For many people, things went up and down with the state of affairs at Baylor. Even the great Willie Nelson — who frequently played in a Waco salon back then — had Baylor ties. And talking about Baylor means talking about Baptists. We used to joke that there were more Baptists in Waco than there were people. We had normal Baptists, conservative Baptists, “moderate” Baptists and even a few truly liberal Baptists. Welcome to Waco.

This old Waco had a dark side — a tragic, but normal, state of things in light of America’s history with race and poverty. Many of the locals were brutally honest about that. And in recent decades, Waco has had tons of bad luck, media-wise. Say “Waco” and people think — you know what.

As you would imagine, the fact that Waco is now one of the Sunbelt’s hottest tourism zones cracks me up. But that’s the starting point for a long, long BuzzFeed feature that I have been mulling over for some time. Here’s the epic double-decker headline:

”Fiixer Upper” Is Over, But Waco’s Transformation Is Just Beginning.

HGTV stars Chip and Joanna Gaines helped convert a sleepy Texas town into a tourist mecca. But not everyone agrees on what Waco’s “restoration” should look like.

There is an important, newsworthy, piece of news writing buried inside this sprawling, first-person “reader” by BuzzFeed scribe Anne Helen Petersen. It’s kind of hard to find, since the piece keeps getting interrupted by chunks of material that could have been broken out into “sidebars,” distinct wings of the main house.

Here’s the key question: Is this story about Chip and Joanna Gaines and their Magnolia empire — the hook for all that tourism — or is it about Antioch Community Church and how its evangelical, missionary mindset has shaped efforts to “reform,” “reboot” or “restore” distressed corners of Waco?

The answer, of course, is “both.” That creates problems, since there are so many elements of the “good” Waco news that clash with BuzzFeed’s worldview. Thus, the goal here is to portray (a) the shallow, kitschy aspects of Waco’s current happiness before revealing (b) the dark side of this evangelical success story.

This vast, multilayered feature is built, of course, built on Peterson’s outsider status and her contacts with former — “former,” as in alienated — members of the Antioch-Gaines world. There’s no need to engage with the views of key people who are at the heart of these restoration efforts because, well, this is BuzzFeed, a newsroom with this crucial “ethics” clause in its newsroom stylebook:

We firmly believe that for a number of issues, including civil rights, women's rights, anti-racism, and LGBT equality, there are not two sides. 

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For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

For your 2020 agenda: The Democrats’ Equality Act sets up a religion-news sleeper issue   

Following committee approval last week, the House of Representatives will soon vote on the “Equality Act” (H.R. 5, text here),  which would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” protections under the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Crucially, the proposal would explicitly ban use of the conscience guarantees in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by President Bill Clinton. Only two Democratic senators voted against that 1993 act, with names like Biden, Daschle, Feinstein, Kennedy, Kerry and Leahy in the yes column.  

That’s a news story — right there. Journalists should compare such bipartisan unanimity with today’s stark party divide in this First Amendment battle, as on so many other issues. 

The clause states that the religion law “shall not provide a claim concerning, or a defense to a claim under, a covered title, or provide a basis for challenging the application or enforcement of a covered title.”

Need a local angle for coverage? Reporters will want to analyze the impact that would have upon federal funding and other benefits for colleges, health facilities and charities that hold to traditional religious teaching. Anticipate years of lawsuits and political infighting. 

The House will pass the Equality Act because it is sponsored by all but one of the majority Democrats. But a narrow defeat looks probable in the Senate, where so far Maine’s Susan Collins is the only member in the Republican majority backing the bill. Adding political fuel, the U.S. Supreme Court is set to rule next year on parallel questions.  

All that will play out as reporters cover voters pondering whether to re-elect President Donald Trump and keep Republican control of the Senate, thus determining appointments of federal judges and whether the Equality Act becomes law. Among Democratic candidates, Joe Biden backed a similar equality bill in 2015, and the 2019 version is endorsed by the seven others atop polls (Booker, Buttigieg, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders and Warren). 

The Equality Act would cover a broad array of businesses and agencies that provide goods or services to the public, forbid sexual stereotyping and make bisexuals a protected class. It would require access to rest rooms, locker rooms, dressing rooms and presumably women’s shelters, on the basis of self-identified gender rather than biological gender. 

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Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Flyover country: When it comes to big Lilly grant and all those Godbeat jobs, does location matter?

Location. Location. Location.

When it comes to that glorious, $4.9 million Lilly Endowment Inc. grant that will fund 13 new religion journalists at The Associated Press, Religion News Service and The Conversation, exactly how much does location matter?

That’s the question some are asking after AP posted job ads for seven new positions last week and RNS did the same this week for its three grant-funded openings.

According to the ads, six of the seven AP positions will be based at AP headquarters in New York City or in Washington, D.C. The exception will be a Cairo-based newsperson who will cover Islamic faith and culture.

RNS, meanwhile, is hiring a managing editor to work in New York or Washington, along with a Rome-based Vatican correspondent and a Los Angeles-based national writer.

Sarah McCammon, an NPR national correspondent based in the Mid-Atlantic/Southeast U.S., grew up in a conservative Christian home in Kansas City and attended an evangelical college.

McCammon got more than 250 “likes” when she tweeted this suggestion to AP:

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Major Godbeat news! Lilly grant to fund 13 writers, editors at RNS, AP, The Conversation

Major Godbeat news! Lilly grant to fund 13 writers, editors at RNS, AP, The Conversation

Did you feel the earth move under your feet?

That was a pretty big announcement today from Religion News Service, The Associated Press and The Conversation, right?

In case you somehow missed the 9.5-magnitude quake that shook the Godbeat world, the creation of the Global Religion Journalism Initiative — long a topic of speculation — was confirmed in a news release that noted:

The initiative is funded by an 18-month, $4.9 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. to RNF (Religion News Foundation). It is one of the largest investments in religion journalism in decades.

What does the grant mean in terms of actual journalists landing gigs?

Check this out:

Through the initiative, AP will add eight religion journalists; RNS will add three religion journalists; and The Conversation will add two religion editors. Additional business staff will also be hired across the organizations.

The reaction on Twitter was swift and enthusiastic, and rightly so:

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When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

When the Southern Poverty Law Center implodes, why is no one surprised?

I’ve been complaining about the Southern Poverty Law Center for a long time and how it makes all the wrong moves in eviscerating conservative and often mainstream evangelical targets in the name of ferreting out hate. Only when it turned its focus on a British Muslim and got his story horribly wrong — resulting in a lawsuit filed against them by the aggrieved Brit — was it obvious to lots of media people that the SPLC was seriously off base.

With the recent dismissal of its co-founder Morris Dees, followed by the resignation of its president, Richard Cohen, various media, almost all of them on the left side of politics, have been piling onto the SPLC with cartloads of venom.

You’d think it was them who’d been tarred with the hate brush. But it wasn’t.

As religious liberty specialist David French, a Harvard Law man, reminds us at National Review:

For those who cared about truth, the SPLC’s transformation from a valuable anti-Klan watchdog into a glorified version of Media Matters for America was plain and obvious. It steadily expanded its definition of “hate groups” to include mainstream Christian organizations such as my former employer, the Alliance Defending Freedom, and it labeled as “extremists” men such as American Enterprise Institute scholar Charles Murray.

These decisions had serious real-world consequences. Corporations and employers cut off relationships with groups and individuals targeted by the SPLC, and violent people used SPLC designations to justify attempted murder and assault. Remember the man who tried to commit mass murder at the Family Research Council? He found his target through the SPLC’s list of alleged “anti-gay groups.” Remember when an angry mob attacked Murray at Middlebury College and injured a professor? Because of the SPLC, those protesters thought they were attacking a “white nationalist.”

Recent articles that go after the SPLC include this lengthy read in the New Yorker. The critique majors on the organizations less-than-diverse racial make-up, its finesse as a “marketing tool for bilking gullible Northern liberals” and its place as a “highly profitable scam.”

Although there’s very little about this mess that is directly about religion, there is an emphasis on morality or at least morality that got lost along the way. Part of the problem was the incessant appeals to blue-state America to contribute money so the SPLC could kill off the bogeyman of the Religious Right, along with racism.

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In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

In coverage of faith-based foster care, is there really more than one side of the story? #discrimination

Some news stories are more balanced than others.

Take, for example, the Washington Post’s coverage of a controversy over whether faith-based foster care agencies that work only with parents who share their religious beliefs should qualify for federal funding.

This is one of those quasi-balanced stories that eventually gets around to quoting both sides. But the 1,250-word piece has the feel — almost from the beginning — of leaning toward one side of the debate. That imbalance can be seen in the negative terminology used to describe those arguing for religious freedom.

This is the headline:

Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that reject LGBTQ parents

That’s opposed to more neutral wording, such as, “Administration seeks to fund religious foster-care groups that defend doctrines on marriage.”

The Post’s lede:

President Trump made religious leaders a contentious promise at this week’s National Prayer Breakfast: Faith-based adoption agencies that won’t work with same-sex couples would still be able to get federal funding to “help vulnerable children find their forever families while following their deeply held beliefs.”

The president offered no details, but a plan is already in motion.

In a 2020 draft budget request that has not been made public, the Department of Health and Human Services is seeking broad authority to include faith-based foster-care and adoption groups, which reject LGBTQ parents, non-Christians and others, in the nation’s $7 billion federally funded child-welfare programs. That request follows a waiver granted last month to South Carolina’s Miracle Hill Ministries — which requires foster-care parents to affirm their faith in Jesus Christ and refused to work with a Jewish woman seeking to be a mentor — to continue to receive federal funds.

HHS’s Office of Civil Rights argues in the draft proposal that some of the country’s oldest religious agencies in places such as Boston, Philadelphia and Washington have gone out of business because of nondiscrimination requirements that are themselves discriminatory.

Concerning that last paragraph, is it an argument or a fact that religious agencies in those places (Boston, Philadelphia and Washington) have stopped providing foster care services rather than violate tenets of their faith? A sentence or two by the Post to provide details of those closures would seem to be appropriate there.

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Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

Bottom line: Southern Baptist Convention's legal structure will affect fight against sexual abuse

If you have followed GetReligion over the years, you may have noticed several themes running though our discussions of news coverage of scandals linked to sexual abuse by clergy and other leaders of religious institutions.

Let’s run through this again.

* This is not a liberal Catholic problem. This is not a conservative Catholic problem. And there is way more to this issue than reports about high numbers of gay priests — celibate and noncelibate — in the priesthood. Once again let me repeat, again, what I’ve said is the No. 1 issue among Catholics:

The key to the scandal is secrecy, violated celibacy vows and potential blackmail. Lots of Catholic leaders — left and right, gay and straight — have sexual skeletons in their closets, often involving sex with consenting adults. These weaknesses, past and/or present, create a climate of secrecy in which it is hard to crack down on crimes linked to child abuse.

* This is not a “fundamentalist” problem in various church traditions. There are abusers in all kinds of religious flocks, both on the doctrinal left and the right.

* This is not a “Christian” thing, as anyone knows who has followed news about abuse in various types of Jewish institutions. Also, look of some of the scandals affecting the secular gurus in yoga.

* This is not a “religion” thing, as seen in any quick scan of scandals in the Boy Scouts, public schools, team sports and other nonprofits. This is a national scandal people — journalists, too — tend to overlook.

However, religion-beat pros do need to study the patterns of abuse in different types of institutions. It would be impossible, for example, to ignore the high percentages of abuse among Catholic priests with teen-aged males. It would be impossible to ignore the Protestant patterns of abuse in some forms of youth ministry or improper relationships linked to male pastors counseling female members of their flocks.

This brings me to the post earlier today by our own Bobby Ross Jr., about the massive investigation of abuse inside the Southern Baptist Convention, published by the Houston Chronicle and the San Antonio Express-News. If you haven’t read Bobby’s post, click over and do that right now. I want to focus on one quote — mentioned by Bobby — from a Q&A with August "Augie" Boto, SBC general counsel, featured in that investigation. Here it is again.

Q: Since the SBC does not keep stats, we went out and tried to quantify this problem. We found roughly 200 SBC ministers and volunteers and youth pastors who had been criminally convicted. We're going to be posting those records online in a searchable database in order for people to use it as a resource ...

Boto: Good.

Q: What's that?

Boto: Good.

The key words are these, “Since the SBC does not keep stats.”

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Big news on New York's child sexual abuse law -- buried in 22nd paragraph of Gray Lady's story

Big news on New York's child sexual abuse law -- buried in 22nd paragraph of Gray Lady's story

There is an important story — a change many years in the making — found in the reporting way down under this recent headline in The New York Times: “They Were Sexually Abused Long Ago as Children. Now They Can Sue in N.Y.”

As often happens with headlines, there’s a world of content hidden in that undefined pronoun — “they.” Who is included in that “they”?

Now here me say this. There are crucial facts are in this Times report. Readers just have to dig way, way down into the body of the story to find them.

But let’s start with this question: If legislators in New York have been struggling for years to pass the Child Victims Act, why did it suddenly pass with next to zero opposition? Also, in the final stages of this legal war, who were the final opponents to this bill and why, in the end, did some of them change their minds?

The answer is there — way down in the 22nd paragraph.

Let’s start with the overture:

ALBANY — For more than a decade, victims of childhood sexual abuse in New York have asked lawmakers here for the chance to seek justice — only to be blocked by powerful interests including insurance companies, private schools and leaders from the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox Jewish communities.

Boo Catholics and private schools! So what changed? Keep reading.

As activists and Democratic officials pushed to strengthen protections for child abuse victims, those opposing interests — wealthy and closely tied to members of the then Republican-controlled State Senate — warned that permitting victims to revive decades-old claims could lead churches, schools and community organizations into bankruptcy. For 13 years, the so-called Child Victims Act foundered.

But in November, Democrats won control of the Senate. And on Monday, both the Senate and Assembly overwhelmingly approved the Child Victims Act, ending a bitter, protracted battle with some of the most powerful groups in the state. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has promised to sign the bill into law.

Every senator, Republican and Democrat, voted for the bill — even though it never even came to the Senate floor for a vote under the Republican majority. The bill passed the Assembly 130-3.

So what changed?

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This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

How did I miss this story?

Apparently, there is some kind of move afoot in elite media to push for the establishment of the Episcopal Church, or perhaps the United Church of Christ, as the state-mandated religion in the United States. Have you heard about this?

That’s one way to read the remarkable media response to Second Lady Karen Pence’s decision to return to the teaching at an ordinary evangelical Protestant school that attempts to defend ordinary conservative or traditional Christian doctrine on sexuality. (Yes, I am writing about this issue again.)

Why bring up Episcopalians? Well, Episcopal schools are allowed to have lifestyle and doctrinal covenants that defend their church’s evolving pronouncements blending liberal Christian faith with the editorial pages of The New York Times. Private schools — on left and right — get to define the boundaries of their voluntary associations.

These institutions can even insist that teachers, staff, parents and students affirm, or at least not publicly oppose, the doctrines that are the cornerstone of work in these schools. Try to imagine an Episcopal school that hired teachers who openly opposed the church’s teachings affirming same-sex marriage, the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, etc.

Now, after looking in that First Amendment mirror, read the top of the Times report on Pence’s heretical attempt to freely exercise her evangelical Protestant faith. The headline: “Karen Pence Is Teaching at Christian School That Bars L.G.B.T. Students and Teachers.

Actually, that isn’t accurate. I have taught at Christian colleges in which I knew gay students who affirmed 2,000 years of Christian moral theology or were willing to be celibate for four years. These doctrinal codes almost always focus on sexual conduct and/or public opposition to traditional doctrines. But back to the Gray Lady’s apologetics:

Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, returned to teaching art this week, accepting a part-time position at a private Christian school that does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

You could also say that the school requires its employees not to publicly oppose the teachings on which the school is built. That’s a neutral, accurate wording that would work with liberal religious schools, as well as conservative ones. Just saying. Let’s move on.

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