Ira Rifkin

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Pondering how to cover religion news for readers in the 'nones' generation

Here at GetReligion we write a lot about how the news media wrestle — successfully and otherwise, but mostly otherwise — with religion stories that have public policy consequences. That makes sense since these stories constitute the bulk of what religion reporters produce. They dominate because they’re far and away the easiest for journalists to make sense of.

Reporters spend far less time tackling religion’s deeper, less linear realms. Including, how we make sense of our lives. 

For traditional believers, religion is key to extracting sufficient meaning from life to keep its bewildering complexity and insecurity from rendering us dysfunctional. For religion journalists, historically that’s meant concentrating on the minutia of faith group wrangling over the day’s public issues. 

Comprehend the jargon, restate it in more universally understood language, organize it in dramatic fashion, and — voila — you’ve mastered the formula of successful religion journalism.

But as with so much about contemporary journalism, that was then and this is now — the hallmark of which is radical change.

A dominate trend in today’s America, and the West in general, is the move away from traditional religious expression. I’m referring, of course, to the growing cohort of the religiously disengaged “nones,” who by some estimates now account for a fourth of all Americans and 35 percent of those under age 30. Click here for the Pew Forum research on that.

A hefty percentage of these people have tired of public policy religion stories, so many of which seem to defy resolution year after year, decade after decade. Religiously disengaged, they have no interest in hearing about the ongoing squabbles of groups they feel have nothing to offer them.

Now combine that with the growing trend in journalism away from what we like to call the historical American model of fact-based, balanced, “objective” reporting. And remember that it’s replacement is opinion and expository writing.

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Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

Christian Zionism: Theology shmology. We're talking about another culture war punching bag

I’m back — for which I apologize to those readers who hoped to be rid of me. What I will not apologize for is my good fortune to have, so far, outwitted the health-care industry. This despite what I consider some lamebrain screw ups by a few of its practitioners.

Not that I’m totally ungrateful. Medical surgeons possess extraordinary mechanical skills. Just like the best computer technicians and car mechanics. The problem is that health care has become way too specialized, leaving some practitioners unable to consider the patient as a unified field. Drug “A” may be great for gout, but how does it interact with statins? Can beta blockers negatively impact kidney function? You get the idea. Think holistically because your doctor may not. Ask questions. Do your own research.

But enough. Last I checked Get Religion was still about the business of journalism about religion. So consider this our segue.

The occasion for my return is a review of a new book on Christian Zionism that ran in the liberal American Jewish publication The Forward. For reasons beyond all sound judgement, some of the more anarchistic voices at GR thought I might want to offer an opinion. Clearly a setup, but how could I refuse?

The review in question ran under a challenging headline: “Why Everything You Think You Know About Christian Zionism Is Wrong,” and was penned by Rafael Magarik, an English professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

The book was produced by religion and foreign policy maven Daniel G. Hummel, who is associated with Upper House, which for lack of a better term I’ll call a sort of a Christian think tank at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Hummel titled his book, “Covenant Brothers: Evangelicals, Jews, And U.S.-Israeli Relations.”

I have not read Hummel’s book, and I probably won’t (over the years I’ve read my fill on the subject, both pro and con). Nor, I’d wager, will most of those who already have a firm opinion about the intent, value or theological underpinnings of contemporary Christian Zionism.

Which is entirely the point of Magarik’s review — a verbal dart aimed at the vast majority of liberal Jews (in Israel and elsewhere), and equally liberal Christians, not to mention Muslims of all ideological stratums, who look upon Christian Zionists with utter political disdain.

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The universe sent me a message. It's time to take heed

The universe sent me a message. It's time to take heed

The thing about insight is that you never really know in its initial energy burst whether it’s delusional. Still, one has to act.

So with the insight gained from having my heart stop a few times, I’ve decided to step away from my weekly GetReligion responsibilities and devote myself to self-healing.

It's going to take months to fully recover from the two major surgeries, hospital pneumonia and series of seizure-like heart stoppages (cardiovascular syncope, to be more medically precise) I’ve experienced in recent weeks. This followed a steady health decline over the previous several months. I want to give myself every advantage in the process.

I owe at least that much to the many people, my family and friends, that have bathed me in love and compassionate devotion during this time.

(In case you're wondering, prior to my decline I did take care of myself. I was super careful about diet and exercise. But I’m 76 and this is what happens to us all, sooner or later. Life is transient.)

I was fortunate that the heart stoppages — I’m actually unsure of the precise number I suffered — did not diminish my intellect; I did not stroke out. My new pacemaker should handle the stoppage problem.

I’m also fortunate that Medicare, my supplemental health insurance and my personal finances are likely more than sufficient to handle my bills. I fully realize that in 2019 America, and in the larger human family, I’m privileged to be able to say this.

I still have great curiosity about this amazing creation in which we get to sojourn and I’m so blessed to be deeply connected to my wife, Ruth, who taught me how to commit to love, and who I wish to show love toward for many years to come.

There’s much ahead. I remain an adventure-seeker.

I've written for GR for about four years, and as professional journalists know well, one column a week of analysis or commentary is hardly a backbreaking pace. So it's not the deadline pressure that I need to step away from.

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Political and religious fallout from Rep. Omar's AIPAC remark won't fade, nor will social media let it

Political and religious fallout from Rep. Omar's AIPAC remark won't fade, nor will social media let it

Let’s start with the political bottom line — or at least how it stands as of this writing.

The furor kicked up in recent days by Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar will not — I repeat, will not — turn the Democratic Party into the American equivalent of the United Kingdom’s Labour Party, which has a clear and significant anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic problem.

At least not for the foreseeable future. Or to be more precise, at least not as I perceive the immediate future unfolding.

For this, the Democrats, the majority of American Jews and Israel can thank President Donald Trump. As long as the Republican Party remains in his firm control and that of his morally and culturally conservative congressional enablers, American Jewish voters are more than likely to stay firmly Democratic.

Too many of them are just too liberal in their social outlook to vote Republican as the party is currently configured. Period.

This, and because of the substantial Christian Zionist support for Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politically expedient bromance with this president.

Both Christian Zionism, which tends to back the most right-wing elements in Israeli political society, and the aforementioned bromance are, again, anathema to the majority of American Jews.

Christian Zionism, regardless of how well it is actually understood by the rank-and-file, is a complete turn off for the preponderance of American Jews because it sounds to them like Christians wanting to control Jews simply to foster their own theological beliefs and yearnings. And when has that ever turned out well for Jews?

As for the bromance, well, need I say anything more than if Trump’s for it most folks on the American center-left, Jewish or not, find it suspicious. Nor do they like Netanyahu, who is viewed as entirely unwilling to give Palestinians any of what they want for the sake of a peace agreement.

(This latter aspect is far too complex to get into here. Suffice it to say that a lot of Israeli Jews believe the Palestinian leadership cannot be trusted to upheld such an agreement, making it too risky to try.)

For those reasons and more — including the not inconsequential staunchly pro-Israel stance of the current Pelosi-Schumer Democratic leadership — large numbers of American Jewish Democratic voters and their representatives are not about to abide a party takeover by anti-Zionist, pro-Palestinian activists and politicians, who they are also likely to paint as anti-Semitic.

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For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

For Russia's Jehovah's Witnesses and China's Uighur Muslims, politics trump religious freedom

Political power has as much to do with religious group fortunes as do the appeal of their message and the commitment of their followers. It's no wonder that the histories of each of the three major monotheistic religions emphasize, and even celebrate, stories of persecution at the hands of repressive political leaders.

Frankly, not much has changed over the centuries, despite any assumptions that modernity has birthed generally more enlightened attitudes toward politically weak minority faiths. Lip service means little when believers face immediate threats.

Here are two examples of politically linked religious persecution that produced international headlines last week.

The first is the dire situation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Russia. They’re persecuted by the government, in part because they’ve been deemed insufficiently loyal to the state, because they’re a relatively new sect with no historical ties to the Slavs and because they're a small and politically powerless faith with few international friends.

The second example is, arguably, the even worse situation of China’s Uighur Muslims. Not only does Beijing fear their potential political power, but until now they’ve also been largely abandoned by their powerful global coreligionists, again because of blatantly self-serving political considerations.

The good news here, if that’s not an overstatement, is they've received a modicum of  international lip service of late, even if only — no surprise here — out of political self-interest.

But let’s start with the Jehovah's Witnesses. I’ve previous chronicled their situation here, focusing on how the elite international media has -- or has not -- covered them. Click here and then click here to retrieve two of my past GetReligion pieces.

The latest news out of Russia is pretty bad. Despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s recent declaration of quasi-support for his nation’s Witnesses, a foreign-born member of the group has been sentenced to six years in prison for — well, basically for being a member of the faith.

Here’s the top of a Religion News Service report:

MOSCOW (RNS) —  A Russian court has sentenced a Danish member of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to six years on extremism charges in a case that has rekindled memories of the Soviet-era persecution of Christians and triggered widespread international criticism.

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Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Want to get beyond culture war stories? Try digging into religion's aspirational building blocks

Religion News Service recently ran the sort of news feature cum-opinion-column that I find a welcome intellectual and emotional respite from the culture wars cum-all-religion-is-political hit pieces that currently crowd my ever-more exasperating news feeds.

The piece ran under the intriguing headline, “Secular saints, folk saints and plain old celebrities.”

If you don’t at least skim the piece chances are it will be difficult to follow my thinking here.

The piece was contributed by novelist, unconventional — by my reckoning — theologian (though she writes that she regularly attends a “traditional” Episcopal church), and new RNS columnist Tara Isabella Burton. Seems to me she has just the right combination of imagination and thick skin to delve into the origins of religious thought in its broadest, and perhaps unconventional, sense.

The thick skin is a requisite because of the inevitable harrumphs I’m sure she endures from some religion traditionalists prone to dismiss her as a frivolous thinker.

That, plus the equally dismissive slights that anti-religion cynics I’m equally sure aim her way for daring to consider in a spiritual light the myriad aspirations that, often unconsciously, underpin so much of human motivation and thought.

However, given the enormous changes currently afoot in Western religious circles — the rise of the so-called “religiously unaffiliated” or “nones,” for example — I think voices such as Burton’s are increasingly important to the Western discourse on the place of religion in public life.

In short, there’s far more to popular and even quirky religious expression than is often immediately evident.

In this particular piece, Burton addresses aspirational thinking and the huge role it can play in shaping personal faith.

Question: Are you familiar with the term “cargo cult”? Yes, no? Either way I’ll return to this extreme example of aspirational faith below. But first, here’s the top of Burton’s piece.

On a recent Sunday in church, the officiating priest invited us (as he does every Sunday) to pray. We prayed for those you might call the “usual suspects”: for the bishop, for those in positions of political authority, for the recently departed.

But among those we also prayed for was “Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – and for all the other saints … ”

Technically speaking, King is not a saint in any mainstream established Christian tradition.

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Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

Malaysia bars Israeli para-athletes, loses major swim competition and major media ignored it

We hear a great deal these days, and appropriately so, about rising anti-Semitism across Europe, much of it masquerading as anti-Israel political rhetoric. For years we’ve known about the virulent anti-Semitic attitudes that permeate the Arab world and neighboring Turkey and Iran.

Nor is there any lack of probing news coverage about the spike in anti-Semitism here in the United States. Look no further than the recent Women's March on Washington for evidence.

Still, I urge you to read this recent analysis by Holocaust and anti-Semitism scholar par excellence Deborah Lipstadt to better understand this ominous state of affairs.

Lipstadt notes how even Israel’s government and some Jews unwittingly make the situation worse.

What we hear very little about, however, is the Jew hatred — and its geopolitical twin, the hatred of all things Israeli — that emanates from Malaysia.

This past Sunday — which coincided with international Holocaust Remembrance Day — the International Paralympic Committee cancelled a top-level swimming competition set for Malaysia later this year because of that nation’s refusal to allow Israeli athletes to compete in, or even enter, the Southeast Asian country.

Did you see anything about this in the mainstream media?

Speaking at the Oxford Union [in England] a week ago, prime minister Dr Mahatir Mohamed confirmed that the visa-denial was punitive but restated his country’s right to bar visitors from countries whose policies he disagreed with, adding that if the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) wanted to withdraw Malaysia’s right to host the tournament, “they can do so”. He has also previously described Jews as “hook-nosed” and suggested four million, rather than six million Jews, were killed in the Shoah [Holocaust].

The above paragraph is from London’s Jewish News, as carried by the Times of Israel news website.

As you might imagine, the Malaysia story has been followed closely by Israeli and Jewish diaspora media, along with Asian and Muslim-world news outlets.

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The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The Economist: Stuck in a time warp, misses real news about Global South missionaries

The classically liberal British weekly, The Economist, is known for its authoritative, tightly written, analysis-infused news coverage. While I sometimes disagree with its editorial conclusions, I include myself among those who find The Economist a satisfying read.

But even the news outlets I favor the most are capable of sometimes publishing pieces that leave me wondering.

Such was the case with an Economist piece from earlier this month on the spread of Christian missionaries coming from the Global South (formerly known as the Third World) to North America and Europe — a 180-degree reversal from the historical pattern.

This reverse flow says a lot about the state of global Christianity. It speaks to the real possibility of the political and cultural West entering a truly post-Christian age. And it underscores how the Global South — Africa, Asia and Latin America — are likely to define Christianity’s future.

But why now? Why did The Economist  bother to publish, both online and in print, a story about a phenomenon that’s been picking up speed for several decades and play it as if they’d uncovered a breaking trend?

Why would a publication as exemplary as The Economist  publish a piece that reads as if its been sitting in the magazine’s ever-green file for years?

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Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

Religious persecution: Why not cover all groups feeling Beijing's wrath, not just Protestants?

It seems that hardly a week goes by without China ramping up its campaign to mold domestic religious expression to its liking, and with some member of the international media elite taking a hard look at Beijing’s anti-religion policies.

Last week, Britain’s The Guardian newspaper took on the task. It’s grade? Let’s just say it achieved less than a perfect score. I’ll get to the widely circulated story’s (online, that is) limitations in a moment. But first let’s give it what praise it also deserves.

The piece focused on China’s Christians, or more accurately, on China’s Protestant Christians.

In this regard, the story was passable. It included the current talk out of China that the government intends to rewrite the Bible — though just which version is left unnamed — to suit its propaganda purposes. (In September, the online, evangelical website the Christian Post reported that both testaments were to be reworked to the government's liking, meaning more in line with its policies.)

Still, any story that draws attention to China’s hyper-paranoid approach toward religious expression is, in my book, a good thing, despite its shortcomings.

Only by hammering the point home again and again can outside pressure be brought to bear on Beijing’s policies, if, in fact, that’s even currently possible. (For example, don't expect President Donald Trump to ratchet up such pressure; for him and most world leaders relations with China are all about trade and financial investment).

The Guardian story led with the case of the Early Rain Covenant Church, one of China’s so-called “underground,” or non-government approved, congregations. Here’s the story’s top.

In late October, the pastor of one of China’s best-known underground churches asked this of his congregation: had they successfully spread the gospel throughout their city? “If tomorrow morning the Early Rain Covenant Church suddenly disappeared from the city of Chengdu, if each of us vanished into thin air, would this city be any different? Would anyone miss us?” said Wang Yi, leaning over his pulpit and pausing to let the question weigh on his audience. “I don’t know.”

Almost three months later, Wang’s hypothetical scenario is being put to the test. The church in south-west China has been shuttered and Wang and his wife, Jiang Rong, remain in detention after police arrested more than 100 Early Rain church members in December.

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