Baltimore Sun

Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

Will diverse membership save Maryland's Lutherans? Baltimore Sun thinks so, with little backup

It's one of those old truisms that apparently remains true, a declaration by the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:  “We must face the sad fact that at the 11 o’ clock hour on Sunday morning when we stand to sing, we stand in the most segregated hour in America.”

Although many congregations retain a majority from one ethnic group or another, there have been plenty of movements to bridge the gap over the past 50 years or so. And while much, if not most, of the "mainline" Protestant denominations remain dominated by what one wag called "persons of pallor," The Baltimore Sun informs us that local congregations in two branches of American Lutheranism have been revitalized by the influx of non-white members.

Of course, the Sun was not content to position this as just a church news story -- it had to be tied into the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, triggered by one Martin Luther, after whom King was named.

Creating this tenuous link, of which more in a moment, is but one of the journalism problems afoot here. But start with the headline, "500 years after Luther, Lutherans embrace growing diversity" and this lead-in to the story:

When the Rev. Martin Schultheis gazed out over the pews at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Catonsville on a Sunday 10 years ago, he saw about 200 faces. More than 95 percent, he estimates, were white.
Attendance has dropped since then -- these days, about 150 people attend Sunday services. But those who do go have a different look.
About one-fourth of the worshippers in the congregation are people of color -- a development that stands out in a branch of Christianity that has historically been slow to change.

We then are asked to see this as linked to five centuries of Lutheranism:

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Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

Cutting shrinking pies: The Baltimore Sun bravely looks into liberal pews seeking signs of life

How long have journalists been writing stories about the decline of America's liberal mainline churches, both in terms of people in the pews and cultural clout?

I've been studying religion-news coverage since the late 1970s and I cannot remember a time when this was not "a story." For many experts, the key moment was the 1972 release of the book "Why Conservative Churches Are Growing" by Dean M. Kelley of the National Council of Churches.

You could argue, as I have many times on this blog, that the decline of the oldline left is a story that deserved even more press coverage than it has received. Why? Because the decline of the old mainline world helped create a hole in American public life that made room for the rise of the Religious Right.

Now we have reached the point, as "Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I discussed in last week's podcast, where the story has become much more complex. While the demographic death dive has continued for liberal religious institutions (as opposed to spiritual-but-not-religious life online and elsewhere), we are now seeking slow decline in parts of conservative religious groups, as well.

What's going on? To be blunt, religious groups are growing or holding their own when they inspire believers to (a) have multiple children, (b) make converts and (c) live out demanding forms of faith that last into future generations. Yes, doctrine matters. So does basic math.

With this in mind, consider the brave attempt that The Baltimore Sun made the other day to describe what is happening in churches in that true-blue progressive city. Here is the overture and, as you read it, get ready for an interesting and, apparently, unintentional twist in the plot:

For a decade and more, Govans Presbyterian Church and Brown Memorial Woodbrook Presbyterian Church have labored in the manner of many mainline Protestant congregations: Working ever harder to provide spiritual resources for dwindling number of congregants.

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America's bishops take on the porn industry; mainstream media don’t care

America's bishops take on the porn industry; mainstream media don’t care

Pornography reaps $97 billion a year worldwide -- $10-$12 billion just in America -- and the nation's Catholics number more than 66 million. So when the nation's bishops issue a massive new paper on pornography, wouldn't you think news media would listen hard?

But no, most mainstream media's answer seems to be "Yawn." Except for the Catholic press, few outlets showed any interest.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at their second semiannual meeting this year, certainly spared no alarms at the explosion of "hypersexualized" content -- not only videos but movies, music, novels, videogames, "sexting" phone messages, even drugstores, hotel chains, and cable companies.

"In the confessional and in our daily ministry, we have seen the corrosive damage caused by pornography: children whose innocence is stolen; men and women who feel great guilt and shame for viewing pornography occasionally or habitually; spouses who feel betrayed and traumatized; and men, women and children exploited by the pornography industry," says the 32-page paper (.pdf here).

Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, chairman of the committee that did the paper, adds his own ringing quote. As reported by Catholic News Service, Malone calls porn a "particularly sinister instance of consumption" whereby men, women and children "are consumed for the pleasure of others." Adds the 1,200-word CNS story:

"Producing or using pornography is gravely wrong. It is a mortal sin if it is committed with full knowledge and deliberate consent. Unintentional ignorance and factors that compromise the voluntary and free character of the act can diminish a person's moral culpability," says the approved version of "Create in Me a Clean Heart: A Pastoral Response to Pornography."

The use of religious terms like "gravely wrong" and "mortal sin" are especially noteworthy. The bishops are stating their belief that porn not only degrades personal dignity but imperils souls. CNS was alert also in spotting the mitigating factors in the study.

And I don’t see that high standard matched in secular media.  As a faithful reader told us, it may fall into our "Got News?" category.

"They certainly noticed the statements on nukes, the economy and gays," Faithful Reader says. "So when the bishops take on a $97 billion global industry, that's not worth looking at?"

But even the few secular reporters who showed up in Baltimore, where the bishops met, gave it only passing mention. The Baltimore Sun did an omnibus advance story, saying the bishops were planning to deal with abortion, marriage, immigration and religious liberty. And the follow-up wasn't much better: two of the 13 paragraphs.

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Trying to hear the voices of faith in the Ray and Janay Rice story

Trying to hear the voices of faith in the Ray and Janay Rice story

It must be real challenge to cover the domestic-violence drama of Ray and Janay Rice -- the actual story of the human beings themselves, as opposed to the melodrama within the bazillion-dollar kingdom called the National Football League -- without including some of the Godtalk.

Mr. and Mrs. Rice continue to talk about sin, forgiveness and redemption. The same goes for the Ravens head coach, who is an outspoken Christian, and ditto for the general manager. The team's director of player development (and moral issues) is an ordained minister. Many of Ray Rice's closest friends among Ravens players -- like wide receiver Torrey Smith -- are Godtalkers as well.

How do you quote these people without covering the religion angle?

Faithful GetReligion readers know that the team at The Baltimore Sun is up to that challenge.

Thus, I was curious to see what would happen when Rice won his battle with the NFL powers that be and was reinstated as an active player in the league. It's the hottest storyline of the pro-football weekend and, here in Baltimore, local news channels ran BREAKING NEWS! alerts onscreen during regular programming for two or three hours, which wouldn't happen if there was a peace settlement in Syria.

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Dear Baltimore Sun editors: Concerning your MIA U.S. Catholic bishops coverage

Dear Baltimore Sun editors: Concerning your MIA U.S. Catholic bishops coverage

It's logical, if you stop and think about it. Day after day, week after week, month after month, your GetReligionistas focus our time and efforts on news that is published in the mainstream press.

Note: This is news that is PUBLISHED in newspapers, wire services, websites, etc. As opposed to what? News that is NOT published? Precisely.

We do have our "Got news?" thing, which is when we note that something really interesting is happening somewhere in America or the world and the big, elite media (as opposed to, let's say, specialty websites) haven't noticed it yet. Readers send us notes about that kind of thing all the time.

That helps. But let's face it: It's hard to critique coverage that doesn't exist.

With that in mind, let's consider this week's Baltimore Sun coverage of the meetings -- in Baltimore, of course -- of the U.S. Catholic bishops.

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Baltimore Sun offers another look at generic faith of a key Raven player

Baltimore Sun offers another look at generic faith of a key Raven player

Anyone who is following the Baltimore Ravens knows that one of the most controversial issues looming over the NFL has been the suspension of superstar Ray Rice after a videotaped episode of domestic violence.

Behind the scenes, the team scrambled to replace its star running back. Out of nowhere, journeyman Justin Forsett has emerged as one of the feel-good stories of the year, with the tailback's yards-per-carry average ranking as one of the best in football (even though he is 5-feet-8, 197 pounds).

The Baltimore Sun ran a lengthy profile of Forsett last week and, lo and behold, a major theme in the story was his strong but totally vague faith. GetReligion readers who are into sports, and there are a few of you out there, will remember that the Sun has, in recent years, been amazingly consistent in its approach to players who are religious believers. The bottom line: All fog, with specific details ignored or buried. Clearly, this has become a newspaper policy.

So what are readers fold about the faith of this crucial Ravens player?

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Federal workers inside DC beltway? Just don't ask The Sun about their souls

Federal workers inside DC beltway? Just don't ask The Sun about their souls

Over the past decade, I have been doing graduate-level studies in the art of commuting into the Washington, D.C., area from the very blue -- in the political sense of that word -- world of greater Baltimore. However, in many ways I remain a stranger on my Beltway-land commuter train for one obvious reason. I am not a federal worker.

I know this species pretty well by now, from the 50 shades of gray in their wardrobes to many of their favorite forms of reading (iPhones have overwhelmed Blackberries as the years have rolled past). However, there is one major difference between the federal workers who fill my train and the ones that dominate our nation's capital.

What, you ask? Most of the people I know are African-Americans. Thus, it is very common to see people on my train who are reading study Bibles.

A simply exercise in crude stereotyping on my part? Kind of.

However, you can see some elements of these stereotypes in a very interesting, and totally haunted in the GetReligion sense of that word, report in yesterday's Baltimore Sun about the lives and some elements of the worldviews of federal workers. The totally shocking headline states: "Hopkins study: Feds are whiter, richer, more liberal than most Americans."

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Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

Baltimore Sun covers prayer rite for Iraq, without noticing absence of Eastern churches?

If you have been looking at the big picture in Iraq and Syria, you know that one of the key elements of the Islamic State's rise to power has been its horrific persecution -- slaughter, even -- of the religious minorities caught in its path, as well as Muslims who disagree with the ISIS view of the faith and the need for a new caliphate. 

All of that is horrible and needs continuing coverage. However, the crushing of the ancient churches located in the Nineveh Plain region is a truly historic development, a fact that has begun to bleed into the mainstream-news coverage.

Many religious leaders are concerned and are crying out (click here for New York Times op-ed by major Jewish leader) for someone to do something to help the churches of the East, who have worshipped at now-crushed altars in their homelands since the earliest days of the Christian faith.

Needless to say, I was not surprised to pick up The Baltimore Sun and see a front-page feature on a major interfaith prayer service addressing this crisis. Alas, I was also not surprised to see a huge, glaring hole in this report.

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Baltimore Sun sing-along: We are one in the spirit (with a lower-case 's')

Baltimore Sun sing-along: We are one in the spirit (with a lower-case 's')

Anyone who has had any contact -- post-Jesus Music era -- with American evangelicalism will know the lyrics of the classic campfire song, "We are One in the Spirit." Some people may know this song under a different title, "They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love."

One thing is for sure, no doubt about it. The word "Spirit" in this song definitely has an upper-case "S," representing -- even under Associated Press style rules -- a reference to the Holy Spirit, one Person in the traditional Christian Trinity. The first verse of this famous song goes like this: 

We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. 
We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. 
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, 
Yes they'll know we are Christians by our love.

Now, I bring this up because of a very interesting musical reference at the end of the latest in a long list of Baltimore Sun stories written as tributes to brave progressive Christian congregations -- defined as those with doctrines acceptable to editors at the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- that are fighting to remain alive here in Charm City. In this case, we are dealing with a story about three congregations that are sharing a building in West Baltimore, in an attempt to make ends meet.

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