African-American Churches

Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

Unorthodox trans story in New York Times: Voices on both sides get to share their views

What we have here is a New York Times story that would appear to fit perfectly under the umbrella of "Kellerism," the emerging journalism doctrine (click here and here for background) stating that there is no need for balance and fairness on many moral and religious issues because the Times already knows who is right.

The headline on this story from Illinois puts it right in the middle of one of America's hottest clashes between the Sexual Revolution and heartland values: "A Transgender Student Won Her Battle. Now It’s War."

It appears that the goal of this story, however, was to let readers actually hear the voices of ordinary people on both sides of this debate. That's different than the new mainstream-media normal in which the hero or heroine gets to narrate the story and then the opposition appears via one quote from a press release or an appointed lawyer. The key is that only one side sounds human.

But the Times team -- to its credit -- took another approach this time. Here is the rather standard overture:

PALATINE, Ill. -- Tall and sylphlike, an athlete with delicate features and a blond topknot, she changes clothes behind a privacy curtain in the girls’ locker room at her high school. But just being allowed to set foot in that locker room was a huge victory for the girl. She is transgender.
She graduates in May -- but the war over how to accommodate transgender students is far from over in her Chicago suburb.
A new legal challenge is making its way through the courts. And a coalition of insurgent school board candidates, an evangelical church and conservative parents are looking to reshape district policy. The goal: preventing transgender girls and boys from sharing the bathrooms and locker rooms of their choice with other girls and boys, on the grounds that they are “the opposite biological sex.” Their presence, the opponents argue, violates community standards of decency.

Yes, the basic DNA issue is treated with scare quotes. However, note the passing reference to the evangelical church that is involved in this debate.

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New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

New Year’s observations on matters religion writers will want to be watching (Part I)

The Religion Guy’s thoughts about religion-what beat specialists may want to anticipate for 2017 once the New Year has been properly toasted are as follows: Much of the action will circle around LGBTQ-related controversies. I am sure that is not a surprise.

As throughout 2016, all things Donald Trump will dominate the news. Due to the ongoing conflict between gay rights and religious-liberty assertions there’s keen interest in the unpredictable new president’s Supreme Court choice to succeed the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Samuel Alito recently lamented the repression of free speech, particularly on college campuses, but warned that “freedom of religion is in even greater danger.”

Again, this is not a big surprise.

Alito and Scalia uttered that same warning as dissenters when the court majority dodged religious rights in its 2015 ruling legalizing gay marriage. A new justice in Scalia’s mold won’t shift the Court’s balance of power. The bigger ruckus comes later, with a replacement for swing voter Anthony Kennedy (age 80), or liberals Ruth Bader Ginsberg (83) or Stephen Breyer (78). 
Also vital, though often neglected by the media, will be Trump’s nominees for lower federal courts that will decide most of these First Amendment disputes.

Though this is often portrayed in the press as a mere concern of Catholics and white evangelicals, 27 African-American Protestant leaders rallied by the Seymour Institute sent a notable letter to candidate Hillary Clinton. Alongside conventional black concerns on matters like education and justice, the clergy charged that gay activists want to “criminalize our biblical texts as hate speech,” and accused Democrats of “open contempt for religious freedom.”

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Your weekend think piece: Rumors that 'white' Christianity is dead may be off a bit

Your weekend think piece: Rumors that 'white' Christianity is dead may be off a bit

It's amazing how many different subjects people are arguing about in the wake of the shocking White House win by Citizen Donald Trump.

There is, of course, the whole CNN "whitelash" angle, which fits nicely with trends -- real ones, trends seen in the exit polls -- that make the Democratic Party establishment feel better about itself.

Then there is the more specific, and accurate, point that Hillary Rodham Clinton lost the White House because of a culture gap between her campaign (as opposed to those run by her husband) and the labor, working-class, heavily Catholic culture of the pivotal "Rust Belt" states -- such as Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

You put all of that together, while highlighting the valid religion-trends angles, and you get a headline like this from The American Conservative magazine (a journal of cultural conservatism, not Republican Party orthodoxy):

White Christian Apocalypse?
That’s not what it means for America to become majority-minority.

Now, the byline on this think piece belongs to a scholar whose work is familiar to any modern reader interested in global and national trends linked to Christian life and demographics -- that of historian Philip Jenkins, best known as the author of "The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity" and numerous other important books. He currently holds a joint appointment as professor of the Humanities in history and religious studies at Penn State University and as distinguished professor of history at Baylor University.

This piece is must reading for anyone seeking to understand trends linked to the potential influence of the church -- minus ethnic adjectives -- in the coming decades. Most of all, Jenkins believes that journalists and other public thinkers need to adopt a broader definition of the word "white." Thus:

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Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Vice Sports lets Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., preach about Cam, sports and maybe even God

Unless you have been on another planet, you are aware that the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl L.

You also probably know that National Football League MVP Cam Newton was sacked six times, knocked down a dozen-plus times and ended the game in a state of frustration and even rage. This followed, of course, weeks of public discussion of whether many fans don't approve of his joyful, edgy, hip-hop approach to celebrating life, football, his team and his own talents.

This led to the press conference from hell, when Newton -- forced by the NFL to take questions in the same space, within earshot, of the Broncos' victory pressers -- had little to say, while his eyes said everything. A sample:

What's your message to Panthers fans?
"We'll be back."
Ron [Rivera] said Denver two years ago had a tough time and they bounced back. Do you take that to heart?
"No."
Can you put a finger on why Carolina didn't play the way it normally plays?
"Got outplayed."
Is there a reason why?
"Got outplayed, bro."

You get the idea. With that as a backdrop, let's move into GetReligion territory -- in the form of a long, long Vice Sports piece by Eric Nusbaum about the Newton family and, especially, a Sunday morning spent listening to the superstar's Pentecostal preacher dad, Bishop Cecil Newton, Sr., of the Holy Zion Center of Deliverance. The headline: "The House that Built Cam."

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Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

Holy smoke! Did Baptist News Global spot a ghost in that BBC barbecue report?

As you would expect, I get lots of email about religion- news stuff. That tends to happen when you've been in the religion-columnist business -- in one form or another -- since 1982. All that old snail mail on dead-tree pulp turned into email. Turn, turn, turn.

I still receive quite a bit of material from denominational wire services and independent religious publications, both large and small. That's one of the places that I find all those "Got news?" items about valid and interesting news stories that are out there, but not in the mainstream press.

During the decades since the great Southern Baptist civil war, I kept reading both the SBC operated Baptist Press and the Associated Baptist Press wire linked to the "moderate," or doctrinally progressive (some would say liberal) Baptist congregations that remain in the larger convention, and a few that have fled. ABP has evolved into a broad, basically mainline-Protestant wire called Baptist News Global. Both Baptist wires are must reading for journalists following the religion beat.

One of the most interesting things Baptist Global News does is offer, in its regular "push" digest online, a selection of links to interesting religion items from other newsrooms. The other day -- right there with retiring Presbyterian leaders, a key Southern Baptist voice calling for more countercultural Christianity and other items -- was a link to a long, interesting BBC report about the fact that America's pop-culture boom linked to barbecue culture seems to have skipped over African-American pitmasters.

 So, as the East Tennessee mountains guy that I am, I dug right into this story -- assuming that it would eventually have an interesting religion hook. After all, why would Baptist News Global have this piece in its news elsewhere list?

I read on, and on. This is about as close as I came to hitting a religion theme:

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Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

Looking inside Pew numbers: It appears that black churches are not fading away

This morning I was doing some search-engine work on African-American churches for my piece on the long, but totally faith-free, news feature about the Rev. Al Sharpton that ran in The Los Angeles Times. In the middle of those searches I hit a link that reminded me of a recent Religion News Service story that I had wanted to bring to the attention of GetReligion readers.

As you would expect, considering the subject material, this piece was written by one of this website's favorite veterans on religion-news beat, Adelle Banks. I do not write about her work as much as I would like, simply because she was a long-time lecturer -- nearly two decades -- in the journalism programs I ran in Washington, D.C., for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities.

In this case, Banks focused in on a newsworthy wrinkle in a recent tsunami of religion "landscape" numbers from the Pew Research Center. This is one of those cases where church decline made the headlines, but she found an positive exception to the rule. Here is the overture for her report, setting the stage for the summary:

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (RNS) At Alfred Street Baptist Church, the pews start to fill more than half an hour before the service begins. White-uniformed ushers guide African-Americans of all ages to their seats. Some stand and wave their hands in the air as the large, robed choir begins to sing.
In September, after using a dozen wired overflow rooms, the church will start its fourth weekend service. So many people attend, church leaders are now asking people to limit their attendance to one service.

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The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

The Los Angeles Times presents the Rev. Al Sharpton, with zero signs of God or faith at all

A few years ago, I got out a notepad and wrote a list of the "seven deadly sins" of religion writing in the modern mainstream press. 

Right near the top of the list is the tendency among reporters to assume that all religious issues are, in reality, political issues when push comes to shove. It's a kind of militant materialism that assumes the political life is the ultimate reality for all people, since that happens to be the case for legions of people (but not all) in elite newsrooms.

It is especially easy to see this principle at work in mainstream news coverage of the African-American church. Am I the only person that has noticed that major news organizations have started omitting the term "the Rev." when printing the names of many black clergy?

Of course, it must be noted that clergy have -- for generations -- provided crucial public leadership for the entire black community, including in politics. The fact that this is true does not, however, mean that the work these pastors do in the public square has nothing to do with their faith and their role as church leaders.

This brings us to the Rev. Al Sharpton, a Pentecostal preacher turned Baptist whose high-profile work in politics and mass-media career have made him a controversial figure, including among African-American clergy. It is common to hear his critics say that he doesn't deserve the title "the Rev." -- which, in my opinion, only makes it more important for journalists to provide basic facts about who this man is, what he believes and to whom he relates as a minister. The bottom line: He is ordained and he is making faith claims, as well as political claims, when he speaks and/or preaches.

The Los Angeles Times times recently offered up a lengthy news feature on Sharpton that is a perfect, five-star example of all of this. Click on this link and do some searching. Here are some words you will not find in this piece -- "God," "Jesus," "faith," "religion," "Bible" and "ordained." The only reason "church" appears is that there are descriptions of rallies held in churches.

Is this a comment about Sharpton, the Los Angeles Times or both?

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Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Few gaps in fine New York Times look at hospice and common fears among African-Americans

Let's face it. The religion-news beat is amazing. I have never understood how many journalists consider this a fringe topic that doesn't deserve mainstream coverage.

Decades ago, I interviewed scores of newspaper editors for my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and you want to know the two most common reasons they gave for avoiding religion? Religion was (a) boring and (b) too controversial. That's the problem, you see, the world is just full of boring, controversial religion stories.

I think any professional who works on this beat for multiple decades -- which describes all the current GetReligionistas -- lives in a state of amazement at how complex new stories, and new angles on old stories, just keep showing up.

That's how I felt reading a very interesting New York Times feature about the struggle to promote hospice in African-American churches. Once again, it is amazing what the Times can do when a religion topic doesn't touch on the Sexual Revolution and, thus, clash with the core doctrines of Kellerism. Here is the key summary material near the top of this fine story, which opens with tragic events in the lives of the Rev. Vernal Harris and his wife Narseary, who have lost two sons to sickle cell anemia:

Hospice use has been growing fast in the United States as more people choose to avoid futile, often painful medical treatments in favor of palliative care and dying at home surrounded by loved ones. But the Harrises, who are African-American, belong to a demographic group that has long resisted the concept and whose suspicions remain deep-seated.
It is an attitude borne out by recent federal statistics showing that nearly half of white Medicare beneficiaries enrolled in hospice before death, compared with only a third of black patients. The racial divide is even more pronounced when it comes to advance care directives -- legal documents meant to help families make life-or-death decisions that reflect a patient’s choices. Some 40 percent of whites aged 70 and over have such plans, compared with only 16 percent of blacks.

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Must read: Baltimore Sun explores rich world of ushers, in black church traditions

Must read: Baltimore Sun explores rich world of ushers, in black church traditions

During my two decades -- sort of -- teaching journalism in Washington, one of the sharpest and most talented journalists I got to know was Hamil Harris of The Washington Post.

Now, this ultra-energetic man -- a student once called him Hurricane Hamil -- is talented in so many ways. Name me another former Florida State University gridiron lineman who is a great multi-platform reporter, speaks Russian, is a talented Gospel musician, has worked as a tech aide (hope I got that right) in emergency room surgery and has a theology degree. Does he fly airplanes too? I forget.

I could tell so many Hamil stories. But the key for this post today is his constant emphasis, speaking to my students, on never losing sight of the human element in reporting. Journalism is about people, their voices, their stories, their pain, their joy and, yes, the information in their heads and at their fingertips. Journalism is often about famous people, but wise journalists know that everyone they meet knows something about some story, information that could be crucial in the future. Treat them right. Respect them. Listen to them.

That's Hamil talking. This brings me to his insights, through the years, into the role that ushers play in African-American church life. They are more than doorkeepers. Ushers are a crucial part of what these churches do, both in worship and in community building. They are the eyes and ears of the body of the church.

So I thought of Hamil when The Baltimore Sun ran a fine news feature the other day under the somewhat bland headline: "Ushers serve as 'doorkeepers' to worship." The opening anecdote captures the "eyes and ears" concept.

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