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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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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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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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Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

Oh yeah -- this post is about that RNS column on why journalists just can't 'get religion'

If you ever needed proof that the editor of The New York Times saying something is what makes a point of view “real,” then check out the new Religion News Service opinion piece with this headline: “What it means to ‘get’ religion in 2020.”

Charles C. Camosy of Fordham University starts his “Purple Catholicism” column in a perfectly logical place. That would be the celebrated National Public Radio interview nearly three years ago in which Times executive editor Dean Baquet sort of admits that many journalists have trouble grasping the importance of religion in real life in America and around the world.

That’s the interview that, at the time, was marked with a GetReligion piece under the headline, “New York Times editor: We just don't get (a) religion, (b) the alt-right or (c) whatever.”

(RNS) — Following the 2016 presidential election, Dean Baquet, then executive editor of The New York Times, declared that one of his “big jobs” was to “really understand and explain the forces in America” that produced such a surprising result. Leading media organizations, he admirably admitted, simply do not “get religion.”

Baquet was right to be concerned. Otherwise sophisticated journalists and commentators regularly display minimal understanding of religion and how theological claims ought to function in public discourse. This not only hampers journalists’ ability to get to the heart of a story, it contributes much to the massive and growing distrust religious people tend to have of major media institutions.  

Comosy seems to assume that Baquet’s words brought this sad situation into the light of day, as opposed to millions of words of media-criticism and praise published here at GetReligion over nearly 17 years. I could note my cover story on this topic at The Quill in 1983, but that would be rather indecorous.

However, I will pause to be thankful for the first URL included in this RNS piece — the “minimal understand of religion” link — which points to at GetReligion post with this headline: “Mark Hemingway takes GetReligion-like stroll through years of New York Times religion gaffes.” Yes, that Mark Hemingway.

But here is the key to this piece: Rather than focusing on embarrassing religion errors that make it into print (even though errors are a sign of deeper issues), the RNS columnist digs deep into a philosophical issue noted many, many, many times at here at GetReligion. I am referring to the tendency by journalists that some subjects are “real” (politics and economics), while others are not so real (religion).

Here is the heart of the matter, from his perspective.

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New York Times get close, oh so close, to doctrinal discussion in story on interracial wedding refusal

New York Times get close, oh so close, to doctrinal discussion in story on interracial wedding refusal

Close.

Oh so close.

The New York Times reported this week on the case of a Mississippi event hall initially declining to host an interracial wedding.

And yes, there is a strong religion angle up top — so strong that I was hopeful the Times would actually delve into the doctrinal question involved. Care to hazard a guess whether that happened?

Let’s start at the top:

The owners of an event hall in northeastern Mississippi apologized on Tuesday for refusing to host a wedding for an interracial couple — an exchange captured in a widely viewed video — saying that they incorrectly believed that interracial marriage went against their Christian beliefs.

The sister of the groom, LaKambria Welch, said her brother, who is black, and his fiancée, who is white, had been in touch for about a week with Boone’s Camp Event Hall in Booneville, Miss., about having their wedding there. But then the couple received a message, according to Ms. Welch, that said that they could not proceed because of the owners’ personal beliefs.

Keep reading, and the story notes that Welch, 24, went to the venue with her mother and filmed an exchange over the refusal.

This is key:

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Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

Don’t forget about the role of Catholicism in those ‘Back to School’ stories

It’s back to school time. For much of the country, Labor Day officially signaled the end of those lazy summer beach days. Students of all ages across the country are again worried about grades and homework. For many, school began a few weeks ago.

In the Northeast, where most of the major news organizations are located, schools opens this week. That means readers are seeing lots of back-to-school stories.

These features typically range from the mundane (which notebooks are in style this year) to scary (involving enhanced security following a summer of mass shootings). There are also plenty of stories regarding the cost of books and supplies — something that seem to rise in cost each year.

In New York City, where I live, there are roughly 1.1 million students who attend public school when counting kindergarten through high school. Students who attend private schools and Charter ones make up about a quarter of the total number of the 1.24 million children who call one of the city’s five borough’s home.

That’s a significant part of the larger story. Yet Catholic schools — religious schools in general — are usually lost in the back-to-school news frenzy.

The bottom line: The Catholic church has done a lot for education in New York and indeed across the country and around the world. Catholic schools don’t get much coverage — in New York or elsewhere — unless the news involves clergy sex abuse.  

That’s unfortunate because Catholic education continues to be an important resource and major factor in the lives of so many families. As we approach the start of school, here are a few story ideas editors and education beat reporters should ponder:

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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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Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Pro-choice doctor on abortion and Israeli law: In this case, the story is complicated

Frederica Mathewes-Green, a longtime friend of GetReligion and its founders, began her transformation into a pro-life activist in 1976, after reading a piece called “What I Saw at the Abortion” in Esquire. Read it and I predict you can tell the passage that grabbed her and would not let go.

We never quite know the potential of one honest essay or journalism feature to move a person’s conscience. This leads me to “I Found the Outer Limits of My Pro-choice Beliefs” by Chavi Eve Karkowsky, a specialist in maternal-fetal medicine, writing for The Atlantic.

Karkowsky remains resolutely pro-choice in her sympathies, as reflected in how she describes pro-lifers protesting at late-term abortion facilities as “screaming at [women] not to do what they have already spent days or weeks weeping about.” It’s odd that pro-lifers — diverse people who often protest in silence, pray the rosary, have calm conversations with women and offer to help them bring their babies to term — apparently can only scream in their mass-media appearances.

But I digress. Karkowsky’s new awareness of these outer limits emerges from a time of working in Israel, after her husband took a job there. Israel’s laws on abortion are more permissive than those in the United States, although they also require taking the decision to a Termination of Pregnancy Committee (va’ada), as Karkowsky explains:

In this majority-Jewish country with deep socialist roots, abortion law has never been constructed around the idea of a woman’s power over her own body, or around the value of fetal life. The basics of abortion law were passed in the 1970s, and were largely built around demographic concerns in a tiny collectivist country that, at the time, was almost continually at war. Though changes have been made, those foundational laws still prevail. In Israel, terminations of pregnancy, regardless of gestational age, must go through a committee, a va’ada. Without its assent, an abortion is officially a criminal offense. But here’s the surprise: In the end, more than 97 percent of abortion requests that come before the committee are approved.

The va’ada can approve abortions for specific reasons spelled out by the law: if the woman is over 40, under 18, or unmarried; if the pregnancy is the result of rape, an extramarital affair, or any illegal sexual relationship, such as incest; if the fetus is likely to have a physical or mental defect; if continuing the pregnancy would endanger the woman’s life or cause her mental or physical harm. Some of these rationales, such as rape and incest, are familiar from the U.S. abortion debate. Other justifications, such as those involving the woman’s age or marital status, bespeak a certain amount of social engineering, and may strike Americans as odd matters for the law to take into account.

Karkowsky describes herself as homesick for Roe v. Wade, which sounds ghoulish for a moment, but her explanation makes it warmer and — how to put this? — almost pro-natal:

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