See that thinning flock of pew sitters with gray hair? That's a big religion-beat trend

See that thinning flock of pew sitters with gray hair? That's a big religion-beat trend

If you are interested in the future of American religion, then you have to be willing to talk about these kinds of topics — birth rates, conversions and, increasingly, the average age of people in the pews.

In other words, it’s time, once again, to discuss that old saying: “Demographics are destiny.”

GetReligion readers: How often have you seen posts that discuss questions of this kind? The reason we keep bringing this up is that reporters have to be willing to ask questions about issues rooted in demographics — that is, if they want to anticipate future news trends.

That’s true in politics, for sure. You know Republicans are worried about younger voters right now. You also know that savvy Democrats are starting to pay attention to the rising number of Latinos who are worshiping in evangelical and Pentecostal pews.

All of this is, of course, leading up to this week’s thought-provoking graphic offering from political scientist Ryan Burge, who is also an ordained Baptist progressive. Journalists who cover religion need to follow this guy on Twitter and bookmark this website: Religion in Public.

Here’s the Big Idea for this week:

“The average Muslim in America is nearly 22 years younger than the average Mainline Protestant.”

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Jesus, sin, the cross: AP skips past an interesting quote by former Iranian revolutionary

Jesus, sin, the cross: AP skips past an interesting quote by former Iranian revolutionary

Every now and then, you hit a direct quote in a news story that makes you pause, scratch your head and say, “What?”

That’s what happened recently to a GetReligion reader who while looking at an Associated Press report about an interesting plot twist in the life of man who participated in one of the most important news events of the late 1970s.

Here is the headline that appeared atop the Journal Gazette (Fort Wayne, Ind.) version of this AP story: “Iranian student now regrets seizing embassy.

Let’s look at the overture, reading down to the key quote:

TEHRAN, Iran — His revolutionary fervor diminished by the years that have also turned his dark brown hair white, one of the Iranian student leaders of the 1979 U.S. Embassy takeover says he now regrets the seizure of the diplomatic compound and the 444-day hostage crisis that followed.

Speaking to The Associated Press ahead of today's 40th anniversary of the attack, Ebrahim Asgharzadeh acknowledged that the repercussions of the crisis still reverberate as tensions remain high between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran's collapsing nuclear deal with world powers.

Asgharzadeh cautioned others against following in his footsteps, despite the takeover becoming enshrined in hard-line mythology. He also disputed a revisionist history now being offered by supporters of Iran's Revolutionary Guard that they directed the attack, insisting all the blame rested with the Islamist students who let the crisis spin out of control.

“Like Jesus Christ, I bear all the sins on my shoulders,” Asgharzadeh said.

Yes, that’s apparently what he said.

As our reader commented in an email: “He mentions Jesus taking on the sins of the world on his shoulders, and he is doing likewise. Might he have become Christian?

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Centuries of blood and faith: Why many Christians in Middle East look to Russia for help

Centuries of blood and faith: Why many Christians in Middle East look to Russia for help

Whenever I travel overseas, I am always humbled by how much news consumers in other lands know about what is happening in America and around the world.

This sadness is linked to one of the saddest realities — for decades — in American journalism: American readers don’t seem to care much about international trends and news. Thus, far too many American newspapers dedicate little or no space to international news.

Now, combine that with the reality that has driven GetReligion for 17 years, which is the sad state of accurate, informed, fair-minded religion-news coverage in many, maybe most, American newsrooms (especially in television news).

So what happens when you put those two sad trends together? If way too many journalists don’t “get” religion and way too many news consumers don’t care much about international news, what do you think happens to coverage of complicated religion-news trends and issues on the other side of the planet?

That was the subject of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

In particular, host Todd Wilken and I focused on the media’s struggles to cover the complicated religious realities in the Middle East — such as Russia’s role in Syria, in the wake of Donald’s Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish forces in the northern rim of that troubled land, leading to a Turkish invasion that threatened many religious minorities.

The big idea: Of course Russia has economic and political interests in Syria, ties that have been there for many years. It would be stupid to ignore those realities. But what about the religious ties between Orthodoxy in Russia and the ancient Orthodox Church of Antioch, for centuries based on the Street Called Straight in Damascus? How do you cover Russia’s interests in Syria without even mentioning that?

Come to think of it: How can reporters (even in elite newsrooms like The New York Times) cover almost anything that happens in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Israel and elsewhere without taking in account religious trends and history?

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A day later: What's the latest Washington Post headline mourning Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

A day later: What's the latest Washington Post headline mourning Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi?

It’s hard to know what to say about the Twitter explosion that greeted the Washington Post decision to edit the headline atop its bookish obituary for Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Islamic State forces that ravaged large portions of Iraq and Syria.

By just about anyone’s definitions he was a terrorist, rapist and mass murderer. On the other hand, I must admit that I didn’t know much about his career as a “conservative academic,” to use one interesting label included in this long Post feature.

Yes, we will get to some of the searing mock headlines responding to this popular Twitter hashtag — #WaPoDeathNotices. But first, here is a basic story-about-the-story summary care of The Hill:

The Washington Post changed the headline on its obituary for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi after initially calling him an “austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State.”

Wait. “Initially” calling him what? The very next sentence notes:

The Post changed its headline for the obituary at least twice Sunday, starting by describing al-Baghdadi as the “Islamic State’s terrorist-in-chief.” The newspaper then adjusted the headline to call al-Baghdadi the “austere religious scholar at helm of Islamic State,” sparking some backlash on social media. 

The headline has now been updated to describe al-Baghdadi as the “extremist leader of Islamic State.”

Clearly, someone thought “terrorist-in-chief” was a bit over the top and said the headline should be softened to reflect the tone of the story itself — which is dominated by information about the academic and semi-political career of al-Baghdadi, rather than his blood-soaked actions as the ISIS semi-prophet.

You can see the roots of the second Post headline in the lede that remains intact:

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Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

Yes, Russian interests in Syria are political, but there are centuries of religious ties as well

As a rule, the foreign desk of The New York Times does high-quality work when covering religious stories that are clearly defined as religion stories, frequently drawing praise here at GetReligion.

However, when an international story is defined in political terms — such as Donald Trump’s decision to abandon Kurdish communities in northern Syria — editors at the Times tend to miss the religion “ghosts” (to use a familiar GetReligion term) that haunt this kind of news.

The bottom line: It’s hard to write a religion-free story about news with obvious implications for Turkey, Syria, Russia, the United States, the Islamic State and a complex patchwork of religious minorities. The Times has, however, managed to do just that in a recent story with this headline: “In Syria, Russia Is Pleased to Fill an American Void.

Included in that complex mix is the ancient Antiochian Orthodox Christian Church, based in Damascus. Let me state the obvious here: Yes, part of my interest here is rooted in my own faith, since I converted into the Antiochian church 20-plus years ago. Click here for my 2013 column — “The Evil the church already knows in Syria” — about the plight of the Orthodox Church in a region ruled by monsters of all kinds.

This brings me to this particular Times feature. One does not have to grant a single noble motive to Russian President Vladimir Putin to grasp that secular and religious leaders in Russia do not want to risk the massacre of ancient Orthodox Christian communities in Syria. And there are other religious minorities in the territory invaded by Turkish forces. This is one of the reasons that American evangelicals and others have screamed about Trump’s decision to stab the Kurds in the back.

How can the world’s most powerful newspaper look at this drama and miss the role of religion? Here is the overture:

DOHUK, Iraq — Russia asserted itself in a long-contested part of Syria … after the United States pulled out, giving Moscow a new opportunity to press for Syrian army gains and project itself as a rising power broker in the Middle East.

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Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

Post-Beto podcast: Yes, it's time for reporters to ask about 'freedom of worship' (again)

First, an apology for a long delay (I have been on the road) getting to this important news topic — as in the hand grenade that Beto O’Rourke tossed, whether his fellow Democrats want to talk about it or not, into the 2020 White House race.

I am referring, of course, to his LGBT-forum statement that the U.S. government should strip the tax-exempt status of churches, synagogues, mosques and other religious groups that defend — even inside their own doors — ancient teachings on marriage and sex that do not mesh with modernized doctrines.

If you want to start a firestorm, that was the spark you would need in a nation bitterly divided on the role of religious faith and practice in the real world. Here’s the key quote:

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for any institution or organization in America that denies the full human rights and full civil rights of every single one of us,” he said. …

Will journalists keep asking about this or will that job be left to members of Donald Trump’s campaign advertising team? That was the topic we discussed during this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in).

To its credit, the team at Religion News Service did a basic follow-up report: “Buttigieg, Warren reject O’Rourke plan to link church tax status, LGBT policy.” Here’s a crucial chunk of that:

“I’m not sure (O’Rourke) understood the implications of what he was saying,” said Buttigieg, an Episcopalian who is married to a man. “That (policy) means going to war not only with churches, but I would think, with mosques and a lot of organizations that may not have the same view of various religious principles that I do.

“So if we want to talk about anti-discrimination law for a school or an organization, absolutely they should not be able to discriminate. But going after the tax exemption of churches, Islamic centers, or other religious facilities in this country, I think that’s just going to deepen the divisions that we’re already experiencing.” …

In a statement to Religion News Service on Sunday, Elizabeth Warren’s campaign also pushed back on O’Rourke’s remark.

So, for journalists who are paying close attention, it would appear that O’Rourke’s bold stance represents the left side of the Democratic Party, while Mayor Pete and Warren are trying to find a centrist stance.

Reporters: What is the content of that center stance?

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Unlike the media, Muslim leaders are downplaying China's persecution of their fellow believers

Unlike the media, Muslim leaders are downplaying China's persecution of their fellow believers

The American media, and Muslim groups, remain vigilant in championing the safety and religious liberty of Islamic believers around the world.

But what about the large population of Muslims in China, where atheistic Communists are currently inflicting what’s probably the biggest program of religious persecution anywhere? Reports on the relentless campaign to suppress or “Sinicize” Islam say that a million or more Muslims of Uighur ethnicity have been shipped to re-education camps, amid reports of e.g. forcible pork-eating or renunciation of the faith.

Mainstream journalists have performed quite well on this, despite shrinking resources for foreign coverage and China’s efforts to bar reporters from Muslim regions. But what are Muslims and Muslim nations doing? GetReligion’s Ira Rifkin wrote a Feb. 12 post noting that China’s Muslims have “been largely abandoned by their powerful global co-religionists” due to “blatantly self-serving political considerations.”

Wall Street Journal Asia columnist Sadanand Dhume aims that same complaint (behind paywall) specifically at Pakistan. Prime Minister Imran Khan is quick to denounce “Islamopobia” in the West, he wrote October 4, but “China’s wholesale assault on Islam itself elicits only silence.” He explained, “Hardly any Muslim country wants to risk angering China’s touchy rulers by criticizing their policies.”

Journalists should be quizzing Muslim spokesmen, organizations, scholars and diplomats about this noteworthy anomaly. Such calculated silence, so much in contrast with Christian and Jewish activism on religious freedom, stands out because most Muslim nations fuse religion with state interests.

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Do Africans need to repent for slave trade? This Wall Street Journal piece suggests they should

Do Africans need to repent for slave trade? This Wall Street Journal piece suggests they should

The era of slavery on American shores began 400 years ago this year when the first boatload of slaves landed in Virginia and much has been written about that anniversary. But slave ships from Great Britain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and other countries didn’t do their work unaided.

There were hundreds if not thousands of African middlemen who procured the slaves for these ships. Are they not just as guilty as the white merchants who put them on their ships? Do these middlemen have descendants and if so, do they feel any shame at what their ancestors did?

Armed with a journalism grant, a Nigerian journalist set out to find those descendants and what she found was published Sept. 20 in the Wall Street Journal headlined “When the Slave Traders Were African.”

Not only that, but many of those descendants are bringing their faith into the question. The segment I am reproducing is long, but the Journal’s paywall makes it harder for people to read it otherwise.

This August marked 400 years since the first documented enslaved Africans arrived in the U.S. In 1619, a ship reached the Jamestown settlement in the colony of Virginia, carrying “some 20 and odd Negroes” who were kidnapped from their villages in present-day Angola. The anniversary coincides with a controversial debate in the U.S. about whether the country owes reparations to the descendants of slaves as compensation for centuries of injustice and inequality. It is a moment for posing questions of historic guilt and responsibility.

But the American side of the story is not the only one. Africans are now also reckoning with their own complicated legacy in the slave trade, and the infamous “Middle Passage” often looks different from across the Atlantic.

Records from the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, directed by historian David Eltis at Emory University, show that the majority of captives brought to the U.S. came from Senegal, Gambia, Congo and eastern Nigeria. Europeans oversaw this brutal traffic in human cargo, but they had many local collaborators. “The organization of the slave trade was structured to have the Europeans stay along the coast lines, relying on African middlemen and merchants to bring the slaves to them,” said Toyin Falola, a Nigerian professor of African studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “The Europeans couldn’t have gone into the interior to get the slaves themselves.

The anguished debate over slavery in the U.S. is often silent on the role that Africans played. That silence is echoed in many African countries, where there is hardly any national discussion or acknowledgment of the issue.

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While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

While Catholic Twitter rages, Cardinal Sarah takes a sobering look at modern church

The West is in spiritual decline.

The Catholic church is besieged by scandal.

Society has become more secular and less religious, a collapse that can be solved through prayer.

Those are some of the takeaways from Cardinal Robert Sarah’s new book “The Day is Now Far Spent,” in which he pulls no punches about what he thinks currently ails Europe, the place where Christianity once prospered. Sarah’s diagnosis for what ails the world, but primarily the West, is deeply profound — controversial to some even — and his solutions are equally noteworthy.

“Christians are trembling, wavering, doubting,” Sarah says in the 349-page book. “I want this book to be for them. To tell them: do not doubt! Hold fast to doctrine! Hold fast to prayer! I want this book to strengthen Christians and priests.”

This book is a major statement by a cardinal whose work on theology and liturgy was at the heart of the Pope Benedict XVI era. His voice is hard to ignore and, for journalists, represents an orthodox critique of current trends, but one with more clout than angry voices in the latest storm in Catholic Twitter.

The book, translated from French and released by Ignatius Press, does just that. Before he can offer hope, Sarah outlines what he calls “the crisis of faith.” In a series of interviews with French journalist Nicolas Diat, Sarah discusses how seeking salvation is something that has been lost these days.

“Doctrinal and moral confusion is reaching its height,” Sarah writes. “Evil is good, good is evil. Man no longer feels any need to be saved. The loss of the sense of salvation is the consequence of the loss of the transcendence of God.”  

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