Alabama

Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

Ghost in Alabama 'personhood' case? New York Times produces religion-free front-page story

It’s the kind of dig-below-the-surface, front-page takeout for which the New York Times is famous.

It’s certainly a meaty subject matter: the arrest of an Alabama woman whose unborn baby died in a shooting.

But here’s what I noticed: A holy ghost (refresh yourself on that term if you’re new to GetReligion) most certainly haunts this in-depth but religion-free report from Monday’s Times.

I mean, this is a story that’s impossible to tell without acknowledging the huge role that religion plays in the South, right?

Somehow, though, the nation’s most elite newspaper attempts to do so.

Let’s start at the top:

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. — In the days since police officers arrested Marshae Jones, saying she had started a fight that resulted in her unborn baby getting fatally shot, the hate mail has poured in.

“I will encourage all U.S. business owners to boycott your town,” a woman from San Diego wrote on the Facebook page of the Pleasant Grove Police Department.

“Misogynist trash,” wrote another.

“Fire the chief and arresting officers,” wrote a third.

But Robert Knight, the police chief, said his officers had little choice in the matter.

“If the laws are there, we are sworn to enforce them,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”

Around the country, the case of Ms. Jones — who was indicted by a grand jury for manslaughter — has served as a stark illustration of how pregnant women can be judged and punished when a fetus is treated as a person by the justice system.

A quick aside before I ask you to stay off my lawn: How sad is it that we live in an age in which unnamed Facebook critics are deemed worthy of the Times’ cover? Seriously, are there no opposition sources who could speak intelligently in that prime dead-tree real estate against the arrest and the Alabama law? But I digress.

Back to the main point of this post: Keep reading, and the Times boils down the debate this way:

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Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

Your journalism tip sheet for next week's annual Southern Baptist Convention extravaganza

If you decide last-minute to visit the Southern Baptist Convention’s annual extravaganza at Birmingham, Ala., June 11–12, you may need a hotel in Montgomery, if not Atlanta, since something like 10,000 “messengers” (please, never say “delegates”) will be cramming 37 local hotels. Whether in-person or from long distance, some coverage tips. 

Media should recognize that alongside its vast Sunbelt flock,  America's largest Protestant denomination claims, for instance, 42,000 adherents in New York State, 68,000 in Illinois, 76,000 in Indiana, 84,000 in Kansas-Nebraska and 206,000 in California. This influential empire has 51,541 local congregations and mission outposts, with $11.8 billion in yearly donations.

Long gone are the years when pulses pounded over high-stakes political machinations as hardline conservatives were winning SBC control. But news always abounds. 

Notably, this is the first meeting since the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News blew the lid off SBC sanctity with data on 350 church workers accused of sexual misconduct with 700-plus victims since 1998.

That crisis reaches the floor Wednesday afternoon, June 12, when SBC President J.D. Greear’s sexual abuse study gets a ridiculously tiny 20-minute time slot. Greear’s address Tuesday morning may offer grist. And the June 10-11 convention of local and state SBC executives gets a proposed policy to protect minors (.pdf text here).

Another related effort was last month’s survey on perceptions of the abuse problem, which critics will think exposes naïve attitudes.  Sources who monitor SBC depredations include evangelical blogger “Dee” Parsons of The Wartburg Watch and the 10 SBC victims and victim advocates featured in  the current Christianity Today (behind pay wall).

Greear, a North Carolina pastor, is up for re-election Tuesday afternoon to a second year as SBC president. Should be automatic, though he’s under some right-wing fire for saying women can be speakers at Sunday worship despite the SBC’s 2000 “complementarian” stance that only men should be pastors.

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Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

Alabama getting out of marriage business: Was this a victory for faith, secularism or both?

If you follow America’s battles over religious liberty (no scare quotes), you know that things are getting complicated.

One of the most important stories out there is the search for compromises that protect the rights granted by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage and the First Amendment rights of traditional religious believers who affirm centuries of religious doctrines that reject this new teaching by the state.

Yes, that’s a complicated statement. It doesn’t help that America doesn’t do compromises very well, these days. It also doesn’t help that many — some would say “most” — political reporters have zero interest in learning more about these complicated church-state issues. The result, in many cases, are news reports in which it is almost impossible for readers to know what is going on or why some politicos are taking the stance that they are taking.

Case in point is this Alabama Political Reporter story that ran with this headline: “Legislature OKs bill ending marriage licenses.”

This is complicated, so let’s walk through this carefully. The key question: Who opposed this bill and why did they oppose it?

… The Alabama House of Representatives approved a bill that would end the requirement that marriages must be solemnized with some sort of a ceremony and the state will no longer issue licenses giving two people permission to marry. Instead, the state will simply record that a marriage exists.

Senate Bill 69 is sponsored by state Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore.

Under Alabama law, marriages can only be between one man and one woman. The U.S. Supreme Court invalidated that centuries-old legal standard in the highly controversial 5-to-4 Obergefell v. Hodges decision in 2015.

SB69 ends the requirement that there has to be a marriage ceremony. A couple will simply fill out and sign the marriage forms, pay the recording fee, and the probate judge’s office will record that there is a marriage agreement between the two parties.

“All the state needs to do is ensure that a marriage is legally formed,” Albritton told a House Committee last month. “If you want to have a ceremony go to your pastor and have it in whatever form you want to do. This takes marriage out of the state purview.”

So what we have here is a radically simplified contract system that creates a legal union — gay or straight — in the eyes of the state government.

If citizens want a “marriage” rite, they are free to arrange that with the religious or secular professional of their choice. They just need to let the state know, for legal reasons, that this has happened.

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That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

That crucial role Pat Robertson plays for way too many American political journalists

What images leap into your mind when you hear the word “televangelist”?

If you are a certain age, you probably think of the Rev. Jimmy Swaggart weeping and choking out the words, “I … HAVE … SINNED!” For millions of other folks — especially journalists, like me, who once worked at The Charlotte Observer — this term will always be linked to the Rev. Jim Bakker and Tammy Faye Bakker.

But what does the word actually mean and is it the best term to describe the Rev. Pat Roberson? That’s one of the topics that came up during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in, or head over to iTunes and sign up. The main topic we discussed this week? That would be Robertson’s headline-grabbing remarks about Alabama’s new abortion law:

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

The key question: Why did Robertson say what he said? What did readers need to know to understand what he was trying to say, whether they agreed with him or not? Hold that thought.

Meanwhile, back to that mild journalism curse word — “televangelist.” The pros at Merriam-Webster online offer a nice, logical definition:

… an evangelist who conducts regularly televised religious programs.

OK, that assumes that this person’s primary job is doing public, evangelistic events — like, for example, the Rev. Billy Graham.

The definition offered by the Cambridge Dictionary is a bit more candid:

… The activity of preaching (= giving religious speeches) on television in order to persuade people to become Christians and give money to religious organizations.

Ah, yes, raising money is crucial. But note that the primary goal remains winning people to Christian faith. Does that describe most of the work Robertson has done during his long media career?

I think the blunt offering at Dictionary.com — the source favored by Google — is precisely what most reporters are thinking when they use this term:

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Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Friday Five: Dallas clergy abuse, God and abortion, Colorado hero, 'Whiskeypalians,' Tenn. execution

Here’s your periodic reminder that — from “Save Chick-fil-A” legislation to the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandals — the Dallas Morning News sure could use a religion writer.

When police this week raided Diocese of Dallas offices related to allegations of sexual abuse by priests, the Texas newspaper — to which I subscribe — put a team of reporters on it and produced two front-page stories (here and here).

The team included a projects/enterprise writer, two police/crime reporters and a city hall writer/columnist. A Godbeat pro on the team? Sadly, the Dallas Morning News doesn’t have one, despite the importance of religion in that Bible Belt city. (There’s another Page 1 report today, again by a public safety reporter.)

Ironically, the paper’s initial coverage included an opinion piece (“Why it's good Dallas police ran out of patience with the Catholic Diocese on sex abuse”) by metro columnist Sharon Grigsby. Those of a certain age will recall that in the 1990s, Grigsby founded the Dallas Morning News’ award-winning religion section (now defunct) and oversaw a team of six religion writers and editors.

Those were the days!

Turning from the Big D, let’s dive into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: Alabama’s passage of a law banning abortion in almost all cases tops the week’s headlines.

Since my post pointing out the holy ghosts in much of the news coverage, the religion angle has received major treatment from the New York Times (here and here) and showed up in The Associated Press’ headline on the state’s governor signing the anti-abortion bill into law.

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That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

That latest Pat Robertson juridical quote: Journalists may want to note these interesting facts

It’s really hard for the mainstream press to consider someone crazy and wise at the same time. Then again, the Rev. Pat Robertson is not your normal public figure, is he?

This aging patriarch of the old Religious Right frequently provides one-liners that shoot straight into the headlines, as well as the monologues of late-night political humorists. He is gifted at that, and journalists have long welcomed opportunities to quote him as a defining voice in conservative American Christianity, even as his clout has declined and evangelicalism has become much more complex.

So now we have headlines about Robertson opposing an abortion law. Is that crazy, or what?

It’s a laugh to keep from crying equation. For more background on that, see this piece — “Excommunicating Pat Robertson” — that I wrote long ago for the ethics team at Poynter.org.

I’m not a Robertson fan, obviously. However, I do think that journalists may — from time to time — want to note one or two interesting facts in his background, other than pinning the “televangelist” label on him and then moving on. (Anyway, he’s more of a “religious broadcaster,” as opposed to being an “evangelist” in the traditional meaning of that word.)

We will come back to that topic — overlooked facts in the Robertson biography — in a moment. First things first: Why is he back in the news?

Well, there is this USA Today headline to consider, among many: “Televangelist Pat Robertson: Alabama abortion law 'has gone too far,' is 'ill-considered'.” Here’s the top of that report:

Longtime televangelist Pat Robertson, who opposes abortion, criticized Alabama's near-total abortion ban that on Wednesday became the nation's most restrictive and one expected to face legal challenge.

"I think Alabama has gone too far," Robertson said Wednesday on "The 700 Club" before the bill was signed into law by Alabama's Republican Gov. Kay Ivey. "It's an extreme law."

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Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Looking for God — and a bit of fairness — in coverage of Alabama's abortion ban vote

Before we consider news coverage of Alabama lawmakers’ vote to ban abortion in almost all cases, it might help to be reminded of two simple but key facts:

1. Religious beliefs and the importance — or not — of religion in one’s life play a mighty role in influencing individual Americans’ positions on abortion, as illustrated by these charts from the Pew Research Center.

More from Pew:

About six-in-ten white evangelical Protestants (61%) think abortion should be illegal in all or most cases.

By contrast, 74% of religiously unaffiliated Americans say abortion should be legal in all or most cases, as do two-thirds of white mainline Protestants (67%).

Catholics are somewhat more divided; 51% say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and 42% say it should be illegal.

2. Ample evidence supports the notion of rampant news media bias against abortion opponents, as noted in a classic Los Angeles Times series by the late David Shaw way back in 1990.

I kept those facts in mind as I reviewed various major news organizations’ reporting from Alabama, a state where The Associated Press pointed out a few years ago, “You can spot a Baptist church from almost any hilltop.”

I wondered: Would God show up in any of the stories? And, how fair — to both sides — would the coverage be?

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Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

Yes, we'd love to know more about the 'God thing' in viral story of woman invited to eat with strangers

“A wonderful story beautifully told” is how ESPN’s Mike Greenberg described a recent CBS News report on an elderly widow invited to eat with strangers.

“It will restore your faith in humanity,” a Syracuse, N.Y., television news anchor said of the piece.

On both counts, I’d cheerfully agree.

But — and you knew a “but” was coming, right? — I’d suggest this otherwise inspiring tale is haunted by a holy ghost. (In case you’re new to GetReligion, here’s an explanation of what I mean by “holy ghost.”)

Before I embark on ghostbusting duties, however, here’s the compelling opening of the report by CBS’ “On the Road with Steve Hartman,” explaining how the woman came to eat dinner with three strangers:

For barbecue lovers, Brad's Bar-B-Que in Oxford, Alabama, is heaven on Earth. But 80-year-old Eleanor Baker said her visit here earlier this month was especially divine.

"I think it was a God thing. I think God sent me there," she said. 

Eleanor is a widow and lives with her dog. While she has a big family, they mostly live out of town, so she was alone the night she went to the restaurant. 

Security footage shows her entering, and at about that same time, three young men arrived.

"We were all sitting there talking," said Jamario Howard, who noticed Eleanor, describing her as "older woman, sitting by herself."

Jamario said hates seeing people eat alone. "And I seen that," he said.

When most of us see someone eating alone we feel that way, but our sympathy never solves anything. And Jamario really wanted to fix this, so he got up from his table and sat at hers.

"He just came up and he said, 'I saw you sitting over here alone.'  And he said, 'Do you mind having some company?''"

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Friday Five: Lent trends, Methodist fight, Alabama tornado, Ira Rifkin update, epic NYT correction

Friday Five: Lent trends, Methodist fight, Alabama tornado, Ira Rifkin update, epic NYT correction

I’m traveling to Israel next week on a tour with a group of religion reporters. So spoiler alert: My next few posts will allow me to clear out some of the items in my “guilt folder” as I analyze a few stories that I’ve been wanting to mention for a while.

If you have a comment or a question about those posts, I’d love to hear them. But it may take me longer than normal to get back to you.

I believe that GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly also will be traveling a bit next week, as well, and sources say he, too, may be a bit preoccupied (read: playing with grandchildren). So things may be a little bit looser than normal around these parts.

In case you missed it, there’s a piece of major news involving our team. I’ll mention it below as we dive into the Friday Five.

1. Religion story of the week: It’s wonderful to have Sarah Pulliam Bailey back covering religion at the Washington Post.

I’m no fan of paper straws, but I really enjoyed the former GetReligion contributor’s timely piece on “The latest Lent challenge for churches: Give up plastic.”

Other Lent-related stories to give a click this week (Eastern Orthodox churches start Great Lent this coming Sunday) include Kelsey Dallas’ Deseret News delve into “Can a good meal bring people back to church? A growing number of congregations think so” and this Southern California newspaper’s report on a church offering drive-thru ashes, which is turning into an annual feature topic somewhere or another.

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