Sex

Friday Five: Rachel Zoll update, Notre Dame fire, bad vibrations in NYC , Kent Brantly's next mission

Friday Five: Rachel Zoll update, Notre Dame fire, bad vibrations in NYC , Kent Brantly's next mission

This week, GetReligion’s Richard Ostling visited longtime Associated Press religion writer Rachel Zoll, who is staying with her sister Cheryl in Amherst, Mass.

Ostling and Zoll worked together as AP’s national religion team for years.

Most know that Zoll, recipient of awards last year from AP and the Religion News Association, has been coping with brain cancer since January 2018.

She passed along the following message to her many friends on the Godbeat: “I miss you all. I love hearing what people are doing and working on and wish you the best.”

By the way, Ostling is now on Twitter. Give him a follow!

Now, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Once again, we have no clear honoree this week. So I’ll call your attention to Terry Mattingly’s post on a must-read New York Times multimedia report on the Notre Dame Cathedral fire.

In his post, tmatt also links to Clemente Lisi’s piece on how French church vandalism cases finally are starting to get the journalistic attention they deserve.

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Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

Haunting words: What did Jeffrey Epstein mean when he used the term 'spiritual stimulation'?

I have followed the acidic soap operas (timeline here) surrounding Jeffrey Epstein for more than a decade. That may sound strange, but there’s a logical reason — I lived in West Palm Beach from 2001-2005 and taught at Palm Beach Atlantic University, right next to the mini-towers of Trump Plaza.

Yes, that was a long time ago, back when Donald Trump was embracing his good buddies Bill and Hillary Clinton and acting like a rather mainstream Democrat, in terms of moral and social issues. And it was impossible to read the news in the Sixth Borough of New York without bumping into the kingdom of Trump. That included, from time to time, the people being courted — socially speaking — by Epstein and Co.

Life behind the scenes? That, of course, is where everyone who cares about the details of this sordid affair has to dig into the essential “Perversion of Justice” series by Julie Brown of The Miami Herald. Download it into an iPad program of some kind, because you’ll have to read it in painful chunks.

So why bring this up here at GetReligion? To be blunt: I am waiting for some kind of religion shoe to drop, some angle linked to twisted religion or anti-religious convictions. In my experience, great evil almost always involves twisted religion or blunt, demonic rejection of what is good, beautiful and true.

In one recent story, I was struck by an Epstein statement — when he was a young prep-school teacher — that mentioned his use of “spiritual” activities with his students. Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, everyone is waiting to see the long lists of people who socialized with Epstein, did “business” with him or both. Some of those names — such as Bill Clinton and Donald Trump — are already known.

Will the list contain hypocrites as well as libertines? Of course it will. We live in a sinful and fallen world.

A new Vanity Fair piece on this scandal notes that it’s hard to talk about the mysteries of Epstein’s fortune without getting into the moral dynamics inside his entourage and clients:

In the absence of much other information, the reigning theory on Wall Street currently is that Epstein’s activities with women and girls were central to the building of his fortune, and his relations with some of his investors essentially amounted to blackmail.

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Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

The Religion Guy examined aspects of transgender coverage last fall, but this delicate topic continues to pose media quandaries.

We sidestep here the substantive discussion among religious groups, which is well worth attention. All of these issues will show up in coverage of debates inside and among religious groups.

For starters, should journalists apply “nonbinary” pronouns preferred by persons they cover?

The New York Times, long an arbiter of copy desk standards, has experimented with allowing the “mx” identifier. Other proposed neologisms include e.g. thon, hir, ze, zie, zir, xe, xir, xyr, xem, xer, xeir, xis, hirself and zirself. Problem is, even media that want to sidestep old male-female lingo lack substitutes that won’t perplex readers.

The purpose of copy style is to avoid confusion. We see this problem in a paywalled Times item July 5 to conclude the WorldPride celebration, under the hed “’Gay’ - ‘Femme’ - ‘Nonbinary’: How Identity Shaped These 10 New Yorkers.”

One of the spread’s three pages covered a New Yorker born male who now identifies as “nonbinary trans-femme,” but avoids female hormone therapy due to hopes of having children with the female spouse. The Times followed the subject’s insistence on using ambiguous plural pronouns (they, them, their). As a result, head-scratching readers had trouble figuring whether pronouns referred to the individual or the couple.

Given the traditions and structure of the English language, there are no easy solutions here, and copy editors can expect years of debate, agitation and flux.

Th at earlier Guy Memo noted that Facebook recognizes 50-some identities and writers need to know at least key labels beyond the older LGBT as defined by Yale Divinity School:

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Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

Bad vibrations: Riverside Church war offers perfect case study of @NYPost vs. @NYTimes

This certainly was not your typical media storm about a Baylor University graduate who achieved fame in the ministry by heading to Washington, D.C., and then to New York City.

However, the fall of the Rev. Amy Butler from the high pulpit of Manhattan’s world-famous Riverside Church offers readers a classic journalism case study illustrating the differences between New York Post readers and New York Times readers. It’s also educational to note that the religious themes in this controversy played little or no role in either report.

Starting with a classic A1 headline, the Post editors knew what would zap readers awake while reading in their subway cars:

The reason for her ouster is far more stimulating than any sermon this pastor could have delivered.

The Rev. Dr. Amy Butler, the first woman to lead Manhattan’s famed Riverside Church, lost her lofty post amid complaints that she brought ministers and a congregant on a sex toy shopping spree and then gave one of them an unwanted vibrator as a birthday gift, The Post has learned.

On May 15, Butler allegedly took two Riverside assistant ministers and a female congregant to a sex shop in Minneapolis called the Smitten Kitten, during a religious conference, according to sources familiar with the out-of-town shopping excursion.

At the store, the pastor bought a $200 bunny-shaped blue vibrator called a Beaded Rabbit for one minister — a single mom of two who was celebrating her 40th birthday — as well as more pleasure gadgets for the congregant and herself, sources said. The female minister didn’t want the sex toy, but accepted it because she was scared not to, sources said.

The great Gray Lady, on the other hand, knew that the readers in its choir would want a story rooted in sexism, patriarchy and workplace politics. The headline, as you would imagine, was a bit more restrained: “Pastor’s Exit Exposes Cultural Rifts at a Leading Liberal Church.”

The sex toys angle made it into the Times story, with a nod to Post coverage, but readers had to wait a few extra paragraphs to find that angle. Here’s the overture:

When the Rev. Dr. Amy K. Butler was hired to lead Riverside Church in Manhattan in 2014, she was hailed as a rising star, the first woman to join a distinguished line of pastors at one of the pre-eminent progressive Protestant congregations in the United States.

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Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

Hey CNN: Was a Catholic-school teacher in Indianapolis fired for 'being gay'? Period?

During my four decades or so in religion-beat work — as a reporter and then as a national columnist — I have covered or attempted to cover countless (trust me on that) stories linked to the lives of LGBTQ Catholics.

I also, in the early 1990s (after I had left the Rocky Mountain News) interviewed for a teaching post at a Jesuit university, where I was grilled about my support for many Catholic Catechism statements on sexuality (I was an evangelical Anglican at the time). I was told that I would threaten gay students and others in the campus community.

Through it all, I have learned one thing: It is impossible to stereotype the lives or beliefs of many, many gay Catholics. There is no such thing as an archetypal “gay Catholic.”

This brings me — I apologize, right up front — to yet another mainstream news report about Catholic schools, church doctrines, teacher contracts, doctrinal covenants and “gay” teachers. Yes, here we go again.

In this case, look at the overture in this CNN story, under this headline: “An Indiana teacher is suing his archdiocese, saying he was fired from a Catholic school for being gay.”

The key words, of course, are “fired … for being gay.” Here’s the top of this story:

A former Catholic school teacher is suing the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, saying that he was fired because of his sexual orientation.

Joshua Payne-Elliott had taught at Cathedral High School for 13 years. But despite renewing his contract in May, the school fired him a month later under the directive of the archdiocese, he says.

On Monday, Payne-Elliott's attorney announced a confidential settlement with Cathedral High School. His new lawsuit is against the Archdiocese of Indianapolis, which he says forced the high school to fire him.

The dispute between the archdiocese and Payne-Elliott, who is publicly named for the first time in the suit, is unusual because his husband is also a teacher at a Catholic high school in Indianapolis. His husband teaches at Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School, which was also asked by the archdiocese to fire their teacher after the same-sex marriage was made public in 2017 on social media. The Jesuits refused.

Fired “for being gay” then leads to the follow-up statement that this teacher was “fired because of his sexual orientation.” The key term is “orientation.”

Let’s stop and think about this for a second.

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#HoneymoonHell @NYTimes: Might there be a religion ghost somewhere in this story?

#HoneymoonHell @NYTimes: Might there be a religion ghost somewhere in this story?

The New York Times ran a stunning feature the other day about how our digital age has turned honeymoons into a depressing exercise in using social media to impress friends, family, colleagues and, if possible, the entire world.

People are not taking ordinary honeymoons anymore, if would seem. They are engaging in online competitions to prove that their honeymoon travel was way more awesome than that of other folks. Here is the double-decker headline atop this piece:

Honeymoon Hashtag Hell

Social media pressure to take perfectly posed photographs may lead to the first argument as a married couple. Is it worth a fabulous Instagram shot if you are just having a horrible time?

As you would expect, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West make an appearance in this story.

Ignore them, if at all possible. That isn’t what this post is about. The question, here, is whether — in the eyes of Times journalists and, thus, elite America — honeymoons remain linked, in any way, with the subject of marriage, a topic that once had deep religious significance. Marriage and sex was once part of the discussion. You know, that whole “moral theology” thing.

So let’s ask: Is there a “religion ghost” in this post? That’s the term that your GetReligionistas have always defined as an important religious subject hiding inside a news story.

Here is the overture to “Honeymoon Hashtag Hell,” just to introduce the key players and their dilemma.

If you ask JP Smith what he remembers most about his 2014 honeymoon in Aruba, he’ll say the sunsets, but not because of their beauty.

“It was like a photo shoot for some magazine that would never exist,” said Mr. Smith, 38, a real estate agent in New York, and he didn’t mean that in a good way. He described the weeklong vacation with his new wife, Natasha Huang Smith, as a “sunset nightmare,” “stressful,” “cumbersome” and “torturous.”

Ms. Huang Smith, 34, who works in digital marketing, was attempting to showcase their honeymoon on Instagram.

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In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

In Baptist circles, which is the more powerful position: SBC president or SBC seminary president?

I have a fair amount of experience reporting on the Southern Baptist Convention, going back two decades when I served as religion editor for The Oklahoman and traveled to the denomination’s annual meetings.

In my time with The Associated Press in Dallas, I did a 2004 series on the 25th anniversary of the 1979 conservative takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention. Last year, freelancing for the Washington Post, I covered an all-night meeting at which Paige Patterson was removed as president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas.

But I’ll acknowledge that I’m no expert on the nation’s largest Protestant denomination. For example, I don’t have a clear idea of whether the Southern Baptist Convention’s president — an elected role generally filled by a pastor — is a more powerful, substantial position than serving as president of one of the denomination’s six regional seminaries. It seems to me that perhaps the seminary presidents are bigger, more major players in the long term.

The reason I bring this up is that the ongoing news coverage of the SBC’s sex abuse scandal — in which Patterson keeps making all the wrong kind of headlines — typically cites Patterson’s past SBC presidency before mentioning his tenure as seminary president.

In fact, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram — which should be as informed on this story as anyone — seems somewhat confused about which role Patterson was kicked out of last year.

Here’s the lede of the Star-Telegram’s report on a lawsuit (warning: the details are chilling) filed last week:

A woman who said she was threatened and humiliated after reporting multiple rapes to former Southern Baptist Convention president Paige Patterson has filed a lawsuit against him.

The lawsuit, which was filed by a former student of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminaryin Fort Worth, was unsealed this week. 

It says the woman was the victim of multiple violent sexual assaults on the school’s campus by a fellow student, who also was employed at the seminary, in 2014 and 2015. But even before she became a student, the lawsuit says, the seminary “was not a safe place for young women.”

But here’s the deal: Patterson was president of the SBC in 1999 and 2000. That was 20 years ago.

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Catholic school wars (yet) again: Can teachers take public actions that defy church doctrines?

Catholic school wars (yet) again: Can teachers take public actions that defy church doctrines?

What we have here is another one of those stories that your GetReligionistas have written about so many times that we have crossed over into a state of frustration.

Can you say “doctrinal covenant”?

At this point, it’s clear that many newsroom managers just can’t handle the fact that the Catholic Church is not (in many zip codes) a liberal democracy, which means that many Catholic bishops still think their schools should defend the contents of the Catholic catechism. OK, maybe the issue is whether people in Catholic schools get to attack the faith in symbolic ways in public.

Once again, no one thinks that journalists have to endorse the doctrines of the Church of Rome. The question is whether reporters and editors know enough about the contents of these doctrines, traditions and canon laws to cover them accurately. At a bare minimum, journalists need to know that there are experts and activists on both sides of these debates, but that — in the vast majority of cases — local bishops, representing the Vatican, are the “prevailing legal authorities.”

So here we go again. Let’s turn to USA Today, for a rather one-sided story about this latest conflict: “Cathedral High School terminates gay teacher to stay in Indianapolis Archdiocese.” As you will see, this story is Act II in a larger local drama:

Just days after the Archdiocese of Indianapolis cut ties with one Catholic high school over its decision to continue to employee a gay teacher, another school is firing one of its educators to avoid the same fate.

Cathedral High School, located on the northeast side of Indianapolis, announced Sunday it is terminating a gay teacher in order to avoid a split with the archdiocese, which stripped Brebeuf Jesuit Preparatory School of its Catholic identity last week.

Brebeuf refused to fire its educator, who is in a public same-sex marriage.

Cathedral's board Chairman Matt Cohoat and President Rob Bridges posted a letter on the school's website announcing the decision to "separate" from a teacher in a public same-sex marriage. The letter is addressed to the "Cathedral family."

The archdiocese made it clear, the letter said, that keeping the teacher employed “would result in forfeiting our Catholic identity due to our employment of an individual living in contradiction to Catholic teaching on marriage.”

OK, let’s unpack this oh-so-typical conflict — yet again.

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The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

The New York Times, Falwell, Trump and shady Florida real estate (Oh! And nude pictures!)

Long, long ago, there was a time when few newspaper editors in Texan could resist an opportunity to put the words “Baylor” and “Playboy” in the same headline. Yes, we are talking ages ago — back in the 1970s and ‘80s when Hugh Hefner was still considered a player.

Baylor, of course, was the state’s most prominent Baptist institution. Playboy was Playboy. Clickbait didn’t exist, but everyone knew that combining “nude” and “Baptist” would draw cheers in secular newsrooms.

Why bring that up? It appears that the Donald Trump-era version of that editorial state of mind is a story that puts “Falwell” and “pool boy” in the same headline. Oh, and don’t forget the hyper-clickable words “nude pictures.” And prison-resident “Michael Cohen.” And alleged comedian “Tom Arnold.”

With those lowbrow ingredients, some New York Times professional showed remarkable self-control when writing this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.”

During this week’s “Crossroads” podcast — click here to tune that in — I told host Todd Wilken that you can sense that this headline was supposed to be “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen, oh my!” You know there had to be some Times voices arguing in favor of including “Falwell” and “nude pictures.”

Days later, it’s remarkable how little traction this story has gained. So far, even The Drudge Report has resisted adding a racy headline about it. While liberal Twitter has gone loco (see some of the attached tweets), there hasn’t been a mainstream firestorm — which is what usually happens when a neo-tabloid tale of this kind is baptized into mainstream journalism by the holy New York Times. What’s going on here, in terms of journalism? Here at GetReligion I noted:

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. …

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

In social media, lots of folks have simply led their imaginations run wild.

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