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The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

The Atlantic bravely attempts a religion-free (almost) look at New York kids in the culture wars

One of the most talked about articles in the American news media last week, at least in the Twitter-verse, was not a news piece.

But it could have been a news piece. In fact, I would argue that it should have been a news piece — at least in a world in which New York City metro editors have their ears open and can spot religion-and-culture angles in public and private schools.

I am talking about George Packer’s essay at The Atlantic Monthly that ran with this poignant and news double-decker headline:

When the Culture War Comes for the Kids

Caught between a brutal meritocracy and a radical new progressivism, a parent tries to do right by his children while navigating New York City’s schools.

This is, I think, one of the few times that readers can see the term “culture wars” used in a manner that reflects the definition given that term in the landmark James Davison Hunter book “Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America.” Here is how I described the University of Virginia sociologist’s main point in a tribute column long ago, on the 10th anniversary of my national “On Religion” column. In that work:

… (He) declared that America now contains two basic worldviews, which he called "orthodox" and "progressive." The orthodox believe it's possible to follow transcendent, revealed truths. Progressives disagree and put their trust in personal experience, even if that requires them to "resymbolize historic faiths according to the prevailing assumptions of contemporary life."

On one level — the most obvious level — Packer’s Atlantic piece is about the role that fiercely woke “identity politics” is playing in elite New York City culture, as demonstrated in public schools. So what does “identity politics” mean, right now?

This whole article wrestles with that issue, from the point of view of a progressive parent who has been shaken awake by the facts on the ground. However, Packer also noted that not all identities are created equal, in this world. This is one of the only places where readers get a glimpse of the religious and moral implications of this fight, in the years after Barack Obama era:

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From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

From Azusa Street to Memphis: Sometimes reporters have to tell old stories to new readers

I do not go out of my way, as a rule, to praise the religion-beat work of one of my former students in the old Washington Journalism Center (which has now evolved into the New York City Journalism semester at The King’s College).

But it’s time to break that rule.

I say that because of a feature story by Katherine Burgess — a name to watch on the religion beat — that ran at The Memphis Commercial Appeal. The headline: “Bishop Mason built COGIC out of revival, the faith of former slaves.

In roughly 40 years of religion-beat work, I know of no organization that is harder to cover than the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). As a result, this massive Pentecostal flock receives way less coverage than it deserves. I don’t think the denomination’s leaders are hostile to the press (although I have encountered one or two who were), but they certainly do not seek out the attention.

How many news-consumers in West Tennessee, white and black, know the history of this important institution or even know that it is based in their region? Thus, Burgess needed to start at the beginning, with the story of one man:

He preached in living rooms, in the woods and in a cotton gin.

When he returned from the Azusa Street Revival speaking in unknown tongues, Bishop Charles Harrison Mason was followed by just 10 churches out of more than 100 in the split over the theological disagreement.

Today, the denomination founded by Mason, the son of former slaves, is the largest Pentecostal denomination in the United States, with more than 6.5 million members.

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Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Hurrah for blue pews! New York Times embraces small, doctrine-optional Manhattan flock

Reporters who are truly interested in the future of the American faith-scene need to know this number — 100. Or maybe it’s 85 or 90. I’ve heard others say the crucial number is 115 in expensive zip codes.

But the late Lyle Schaller, a legendary church-management guru in oldline Protestant circles, once told me that it took about 100 actively contributors to fund the salary-and-benefits package for a credentialed minister in a mainline church. When Schaller said “mainline,” he was talking about the “Seven Sisters.” In descending order by size, that’s the United Methodist Church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Episcopal Church, the American Baptist Churches USA, the United Church of Christ and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

In other words, if a church had more than 100 active members (or households) it could provide for its minister and then do other things — like keep the building from falling down. With fewer than 100 members, a church would be constantly struggling with basic expenses, trying to keep the doors open.

So that’s the statistic that looms over that glowing New York Times feature about a lively Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation on Manhattan’s Upper West Side that represents the future of the religious left. The dramatic main headline states: “The Church Where Believing in God Isn’t Strictly Necessary.”

Yes, I hear what many readers are thinking. This is a church that even the New York Times can love. And how many people are in these pews? Readers will have to read way down into the story to find that information. Meanwhile, the summary lede contains a few details:

Observant Presbyterians are always part of gatherings at Rutgers Presbyterian Church. But much of the time, so are Roman Catholics and Jews, as well as a smattering of people who consider themselves vaguely spiritual. Valerie Oltarsh-McCarthy, who sat among the congregation listening to a Sunday sermon on the perils of genetically modified vegetables, is, in fact, an atheist.

You have to love that detail about the “perils of genetically modified vegetables.” However, the thesis statement comes a few paragraphs later, as the editorial angels sing a song of hope for a future free of nasty stuff like ancient doctrines:

Typically, the connective tissue of any congregation is an embrace of a shared faith.

Yet Rutgers, a relatively small church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has rejected that. Sharing a belief in God — any God at all — isn’t necessary.

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Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Read it all: Slate reporter goes to Kansas and spends a few  minutes with 'Uncle Ted' McCarrick

Ponder this please. When you hear that someone has landed an exclusive “interview” with a leader of global importance, how much content do you expect this “interview” to contain?

I am not, of course, talking about one of those two- or three-minute “Entertainment Tonight” reports — “We’ll be back with an exclusive interview with Brad Pitt!” — in which a star answers two dishy questions during a Hollywood junket. I am talking about an “interview” with a newsmaker about a serious subject.

I bring this up because of a fascinating Slate piece that is billed as the first interview with former Washington D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who has been exiled to the vastness of Western Kansas, a region that journalists from elite zip codes rarely visit, to say the least. I happened to drive past the Cathedral of the Plains the other day and it just as hard to imagine Uncle Ted McCarrick in Victoria, Kansas, as picturing Truman Capote in nearby (relatively speaking) Holcolm, Kansas.

The dramatic double-decker headline proclaims:

Theodore McCarrick Still Won’t Confess

Banished in the dead of night to a mistrustful Kansas town after sexual abuse allegations, the defrocked archbishop of D.C. speaks publicly for the first time since his fall from grace.

Please understand: I think that reporter Ruth Graham’s brief encounter with McCarrick showed moxie and yields interesting and, some will say, predictable answers from the fallen prince of the church. I also enjoyed (I kid you not) her 2,500-word introduction to the interview, which is both a quick summary of the McCarrick disaster story and a touching look at the lives of the intensely Catholic Volga German culture of West Kansas. If this second subject does not intrigue you, reading this intro is going to seem like a long, long drive across the Kansas plains.

The interview itself is short — but important. This is true even though it reinforces many themes that have been woven through this tragedy from the start. McCarrick, for example, does believe that he was the victim of a conservative-Catholic plot.

When the reader finally reaches the encounter with the fallen cardinal, Graham stresses that she had been told he was not doing interviews. Still, she rang the doorway at the friary he now calls home:

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This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

This is all about politics, of course: 'A deep and boiling anger' soaks into American life

All together now. It’s time to recite one of the semi-official GetReligion mantras: “Politics is real. Religion is, well, not all that real (or words to that effect).”

At the heart of the whole “The press … just doesn’t get religion” syndrome is fact (I’m wonder if anyone would dispute this) that politics the most important subject in the world of news, according to the people who run our culture’s most powerful newsrooms.

More often than not, religion news gets major coverage — on television especially — when (a) religion affects politics or (b) religion-news facts and trends are debated in ways that, to many journalists, resemble politics (lots of Catholic hierarchy coverage fits into this mold).

With this in mind, let’s look at a recent NBC News story that ran under this sprawling double-decker headline:

'A deep and boiling anger': NBC/WSJ poll finds a pessimistic America despite current economic satisfaction

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that 70 percent of Americans say they're angry at the political establishment

Here is the overture, which centers on the horrors at the heart of the Donald Trump era:

WASHINGTON — The political and cultural upheaval of the last four years has divided the country on ever-hardening partisan and generational lines, but one feeling unites Americans as much as it did before the 2016 election.

They’re still angry. And still unsettled about the future.

The latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll finds that — despite Americans’ overall satisfaction with the state of the U.S. economy and their own personal finances — a majority say they are angry at the nation’s political and financial establishment, anxious about its economic future, and pessimistic about the country they’re leaving for the next generation.

So what is the most newsworthy angle in this poll-driven story? What is the most shocking information in this package of poll numbers?

It would appear that the biggest news here is -- #Surprise — politics and the political implications of the latest numbers about the state of the U.S. economy.

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More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

More news about old churches being sold and flipped: Does it matter why this is happening?

Trigger alert: News readers are going to be seeing more and more stories about churches closing down and going up for sale.

There’s a good reason for this: Lots of churches, in lots of zip codes (but some zip codes more than others) are closing and being put up for sale. This is an obvious local story hook and often comes with colorful art, as these sanctuaries are turned into pubs, condos, art galleries, mansions, etc., etc.

However, these local stories also have valid national angles, because some flocks (think Seven Sisters of oldline Protestantism) are closing more churches than others. Also (think Catholic parishes in New York City), some of these churches are sitting on ultra-prime real estate in older downtown neighborhoods.

So here is my question: Is the fate of the church bodies that formerly occupied these holy spaces an essential element in all of these stories? In the old journalism formula “who,” “what,” “when,” “where,” “why” and “how,” does the “WHY” element remain important?

It would appear not, based on many of the stories that I am seeing.

Consider this new NPR report that does with a very broad headline: “Houses Of Worship Find New Life After Congregations Downsize.” See the implied question there? Why are so many congregations downsizing or even closing?

So what facts made it into the story? Here is the overture:

When Lisa and Dan Macheca bought a century-old Methodist church in St. Louis back in 2004, they didn't think much about the cost of heating the place.

Then the first heating bill arrived: $5,000 for a single month.

"I felt like crying," Lisa Macheca said. "Like, 'Oh my gosh, what have I gotten myself into?' "

Over the course of a decade, the Machecas, who both have hospitality backgrounds, renovated the 115-year-old church into a bed and breakfast. Repurposing these buildings — known as adaptive reuse — is becoming increasingly common as the religious preferences of Americans shift.

So what is going on here?

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Where are the young? Familiar religion ghosts in WPost report on Maine's aging crisis

Where are the young? Familiar religion ghosts in WPost report on Maine's aging crisis

If you have followed international news about abortion and demographics, you are used to seeing headlines such as the following in the New York Times, focusing on a side effect of China’s infamous one-child policy.

That headline: “Teenage Brides Trafficked to China Reveal Ordeal: ‘Ma, I’ve Been Sold’.”

Selling brides? Here is a crucial piece of background material in this must-read piece. Some government policies, you see, have unintended side effects.

China’s “one child” policy has been praised by its leaders for preventing the country’s population from exploding into a Malthusian nightmare. But over 30 years, China was robbed of millions of girls as families used gender-based abortions and other methods to ensure their only child was a boy.

These boys are now men, called bare branches because a shortage of wives could mean death to their family trees. At the height of the gender imbalance in 2004, 121 boys were born in China for every 100 girls, according to Chinese population figures.

Now, it may seem like a stretch, but when I read that Times piece I thought about a stunningly depressing business story that ran the other day in The Washington Post.

This is a story that is packed with religion ghosts — if you pay attention to the ties between religious faith and birth rates that are at replacement level of higher. The headline: “This will be catastrophic’: Maine families face elder boom, worker shortage in preview of nation’s future.

A preview of America’s future? That appears to be the case. Meanwhile, in Maine, this demographic trend is hitting home in a painful way — in facilities that care for the elderly. Here is a key phrase from this article: “There are simply just not enough people to go around.” Here is a key summary of background material:

Last year, Maine crossed a crucial aging milestone: A fifth of its population is older than 65, which meets the definition of “super-aged,” according to the World Bank.

By 2026, Maine will be joined by more than 15 other states, according to Fitch Ratings, including Vermont and New Hampshire, Maine’s neighbors in the Northeast; Montana; Delaware; West Virginia; Wisconsin; and Pennsylvania. More than a dozen more will meet that criterion by 2030.

Across the country, the number of seniors will grow by more than 40 million, approximately doubling between 2015 and 2050, while the population older than 85 will come close to tripling.

Need more information? Later in the story there is this:

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Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Will everybody reach heaven? Are fights over hell about to grab some more headlines?

Chances are churches frequented by your readers and listeners rarely if ever offer sermons about hell and damnation these days. And yet this rather unpleasant topic is eternally (so to speak) fascinating, and may be about to grab some headlines. That’s due to Eastern Orthodox lay theologian David Bentley Hart's acerbic Sep. 24 release from Yale University Press “That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, & Universal Salvation.”

Sample sentences: “No one, logically speaking, could merit eternal punishment.”

Also this: “If Christianity is in any way true, Christians dare not doubt the salvation of all,”

Yes, Hart is a Hitler-in-heaven sort of guy (see page 38), and your sources will have interesting responses. Lest Hart seem a rank heretic, the Very Rev. John Behr of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary blurbs that this book presents “the promise that, in the end, all will indeed be saved, and exposing the inadequacy — above all moral — of claims to the contrary.”

Heretofore Hart was better known for ridiculing non-belief, as in “Atheist Delusions.” The prolific author has held a succession of university appointments, most recently as a University of Notre Dame fellow. Catholic theologian Paul Griffiths (in the news when he resigned over Duke University’s “diversity” policy) proclaims Hart “the most eminent” theologian in the English-speaking world.

Terms Hart applies to centuries of traditional orthodox and Orthodox doctrines on hell and damnation include “absurd,” “ludicrous,” “nonsensical,” “incoherent,” “horrid,” “degrading,” “loathsome,” “diseased,” “perverse,” “cruel,” “wicked” and “morally repugnant.” He is mainly offended by the idea that punishment is everlasting, on grounds that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Hart is open to some sort of cleansing to make sorry souls fit for heaven, but doesn’t spell out any version of Western Catholicism’s Purgatory.

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