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Kavanaugh agonistes: Only Fox News covered faith factor in this high-stakes drama

Kavanaugh agonistes: Only Fox News covered faith factor in this high-stakes drama

If you had any free time yesterday, I hope you were watching the political theater of the year with the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing of Brett Kavanaugh v. Christine Blasey Ford.

In the midst of all the riveting moments — and there were a bunch — in the back-to-back hearings, religion played a small role. Near the very end, Louisiana Sen. John Kennedy posed the penultimate question:

“Do you believe in God?” Kennedy asked the nominee.

“I do.”

“I’m going to give you a last opportunity right here in front of God and country,” said Kennedy, who then asked if three allegations were true. Kavanaugh answered no to each one.

“Do you swear to God?” Kennedy asked.

“I swear to God.” This was a Methodist from the South quizzing a conservative Ivy League Catholic. Those are very different backgrounds for two men who understand that Kavanaugh wasn’t simply on trial before a human court (even though folks at the hearing kept on saying it was not an actual trial).

But it was. And what Kennedy was doing during this exchange was saying that Kavanaugh was also standing before a much higher court than the U.S. Senate. And it was to that heavenly court he would ultimately answer were he lying about his past.

Yet, as I scanned innumerable comments on Facebook Thursday evening, I saw some folks who were triggered by Kavanaugh invoking his faith as part of his defense. There were several references if you knew where to look, starting with at the beginning of his opening statement (from a New York Times transcript), he referred to “sowing the wind” and how the country will “reap the whirlwinds.” That’s taken from a verse in Hosea 8:7: "They that sow the wind, shall reap the whirlwind."

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The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

The very definition of old news, and what a joy to read: A feature on a 400-year-old church

About five years ago, I traveled to rural Iowa to report on a 156-year-old church surrounded by corn and soybean fields and a cemetery where generations of deceased members rest in peace.

The news angle was that the tiny congregation was working hard to survive despite immense challenges facing it and similar houses of worship.

As part of the same "Rural Redemption" project, I spent a Sunday with a 200-year-old assembly in the farming and coal-mining country of southeastern Ohio.

I thought those churches had long histories!

But Washington Post religion writer Julie Zauzmer recently wrote about an Episcopal congregation in rural Virginia that is marking 400 years — 400 years! — in 2018.

The Post's headline pretty much nails it:

This 400-year-old church is older than almost any institution in America

This won't be a long post because my basic message is simple: This is an interesting, well-reported story, and I'd urge you to read it. 

What did I like about it? I'll quickly mention three things.

But first, let's set the scene with the compelling lede:

BURROWSVILLE, Va. — Long before American independence, before the Pilgrims even landed at Plymouth Rock, there was Martin’s Brandon Church.

And now, the Rev. Eve Butler-Gee looks at her flock at the same Martin’s Brandon Episcopal Church in amazement. “They’re faithful. Every single one of them is engaged and active,” she said. But then again, it’s no wonder: “They’ve been doing this for 400 years, and they’re not about to stop now.”

The church, one of the oldest in the United States that still operates, celebrates its 400th birthday this year. And for many families in the rural congregation, the pink-colored house of worship near the James River has been part of their family stories for a very large portion of that time.

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Future of Fox News: Will moral conservatives keep buying what Bill O'Reilly is selling?

Future of Fox News: Will moral conservatives keep buying what Bill O'Reilly is selling?

In a way, this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tun that in) isn't really about the religion angle in a major mainstream news story. No, this episode is a lot stranger than that.

Here are the two key equations at the heart of my latest conversation with host Todd Wilken.

First of all, millions and millions of Americans watch talk-TV commentary shows -- usually the ones featuring hosts with political and cultural views that mirror their own -- and it appears that they think they are watching the news. This happens on the left (think MSNBC and most of CNN) and it also happens, of course, on the right with Fox News.

The bottom line: Millions of Americans do not know the difference between basic news and advocacy news and commentary. They don't understand that many journalists are still committed to keeping bias, opinion and open advocacy out of their news work. This is having a serious impact on public discourse.

Meanwhile, there is this second fact: Millions of moral, cultural and religious conservatives are watching Fox News day after day, night after night, without giving any thought to what BRAND of conservatism is driving the particular commentary show that they are watching. (NOTE: Fox News does have one or two news shows left, such as Special Report, that mix basic news reports with commentary, often from panelists on the left, right and middle. It is interesting that this show was originally created by Brit Hume, a religious and cultural conservative with a long and solid background in mainstream news.)

Truth is, the whole Fox News operation has never been all that interested in the role that religion plays in America and the world, other than a few segments dedicated -- think "Christmas wars" -- to hot-button topics. Yes, commentator Todd Starnes focuses on religion quite a bit in his opinion pieces and analysis work on radio, but that isn't hard news or prime-time material.

So why would Fox News have little or no interest in religion?

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Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?

Tale of two Foxes: What kind, or kinds, of conservative values drive Fox News?

The question came up again last week, at the same point in my "Journalism Foundations" syllabus where it always does every semester -- during my lecture on Stephen Colbert and the role of humor and entertainment in today's news marketplace.

First there is this question: In his original show on Comedy Central, who was Colbert satirizing while playing a blow-hard conservative pundit with the power ties, dark suits and the "I calls 'em like I sees 'em" no-spin attitude? Whose style and worldview was he turning inside-out?

It usually takes a few seconds, but then someone -- usually a student who was raised in a Fox News home -- will say, "Bill O'Reilly."

That leads to the next question: What is the name of the cultural and political philosophy that drives the editorial policies of O'Reilly and many, but not all, of the giants associated with the world of Rupert Murdoch?

Students always start off by saying, "conservative." Then I say: That's too vague. There are many kinds of conservatism in American politics. What kind of conservative is O'Reilly?

Students usually add something like "right-wing," "ultra" or "fanatic." Eventually, someone will say "libertarian." A student or two may have paid attention to the show and know that this means that O'Reilly leans left, or remains silent, on moral issues, but is hard right on matters of economics and everything else. His worldview is defined by radical individualism.

We then talk about other kinds of conservatism and, in particular, the fact that Fox News -- which has a massive following among all kinds of conservatives -- offers little or no news and commentary on religious events and trends. There are some moral and cultural conservatives in the operation, but they were not the dominant voices in the Roger Ailes era.

As you may have guessed, this leads us to the massive New York Times story that exploded into social media the other day, the one with this dramatic double-decker headline:

Bill O’Reilly Thrives at Fox News, Even as Harassment Settlements Add Up
About $13 million has been paid out over the years to address complaints from women about Mr. O’Reilly’s behavior. He denies the claims have merit.

It's logical to ask: What does religion have to do with this story?

I would answer by saying, "I don't know."

However, my observation is that the Times team stacks up all kinds of facts -- many, but not all, with on-the-record sources -- that certainly seem to show that O'Reilly acts like he is a moral free agent when it comes to his attitudes toward women, sex and power.

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Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Oh, Politico! We're not laughing with you, but at you, after that 'advance God's Kingdom' scoop

Hey, remember after Donald Trump's stunning election victory when some navel-gazing media types contemplated their cluelessness.

Good times.

But that didn't last long, huh?

Which brings us to Politico's laugh-out-loud "scoop" featuring 15-year-old quotes from President-elect Donald Trump's pick to lead the U.S. Education Department:

The billionaire philanthropist whom Donald Trump has tapped to lead the Education Department once compared her work in education reform to a biblical battleground where she wants to "advance God's Kingdom."
Trump’s pick, Betsy DeVos, a national leader of the school choice movement, has pursued that work in large part by spending millions to promote the use of taxpayer dollars on private and religious schools.
Her comments came during a 2001 meeting of “The Gathering,” an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians. DeVos and her husband, Dick, were interviewed a year after voters rejected a Michigan ballot initiative to change the state’s constitution to allow public money to be spent on private and religious schools, which the DeVoses had backed.
In the interview, an audio recording, which was obtained by POLITICO, the couple is candid about how their Christian faith drives their efforts to reform American education.

Wow, talk about an insightful piece of "gotcha" journalism! (Sarcasm intended.)

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, the former GetReligionista, couldn't resist commenting on the Politico story:

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"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

"Prayer shaming" -- The New York Daily News jumps in with both feet after San Bernardino

It was about noon Tuesday -- Pacific time -- when news of yet another mass shooting started hitting the news. This time it was in a facility for the disabled in San Bernardino, Calif. 

Of course, this produced the same sickening it’s-now-happening-every-week feeling that Americans keep getting in their gut. We followed the sounds of the cop cars racing through the streets, the press conferences by the local police chief and wishes of anger, disbelief and prayers emanating from Twitterland.

Except that something really interesting happened on Twitter that placed the blame for the whole mass-shootings trend not on the shooters but on those who prayed for their victims. I’ll let the Atlantic describe what happened next in a story headlined “Prayer Shaming:”

Directly after a mass shooting, in the minutes or hours or days between the first trickle of news and when police find a suspect or make arrests, it is very difficult to know what to do. Some people demand political action, like greater gun control; others call for prayer. In the aftermath of a violent shooting spree in San Bernardino, California, on Wednesday, in which at least 14 victims are reported to have died, people with those differing reactions quickly turned against one another.

The story showed a compilation of reactions from Twitter, contrasting Hillary Clinton’s “I refuse to accept this as normal. We must take action to stop gun violence now. -- H” with vapid comments from GOP presidential candidates offering “thoughts and prayers” for the victims.

No doubt Clinton got the media zeitgeist right on this one. The Atlantic continued:

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