Calvinism

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

Theology in headlines: When a terrorist starts quoting Calvinism, journalists should be careful

No doubt about it, when a domestic terrorist starts defending his actions with concepts drawn from the great Protestant reformer John Calvin, it is time for journalists to up their games.

The manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused gunman at Chabad of Poway, is a classic example of a story that all but demands that newsrooms deploy one or two journalists with experience covering the nuts and bolts of religion and, to be specific, church history. Here is one of my earlier posts on this puzzle: “Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what.”

The key is that Earnest was preaching a deadly sermon that — he stated this, in writing — had multiple sources. While he was clearly influenced by the conservative Calvinism of his home congregation, Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, his words and the testimony of church members indicated that he had, for the most part, rejected much of what he heard during his days in a pew.

In the end, his manifesto took centuries of fierce anti-Semitism from sources online and mixed it with a key theme in Calvinism — that believers who have been chosen (the elect) by God are assured of salvation, no matter what. As Earnest said:

My God understands why I did what I did. … To my brothers in Christ of all races. Be strong. Although the Jew who is inspired by demons and Satan will attempt to corrupt your soul with the sin and perversion he spews — remember that you are secure in Christ.

During this week’s Crossroads podcast (click here to tune that in) I stressed that reporters would need help navigating the astonishingly complex world of debates inside Calvinism. That was the bad news. The good news is that — because of several years of arguments about the alt-right and the heresy of white supremacy — there are lots of conservative Calvinists around who are ready to fire soundbites at these targets. They are, as I said, the theological equivalent of “lawyered up.”

There are places to head online to get a head start. Check out this giant double-decker headline at Christianity Today:

Who’s to Blame When the Shooter Is One of Our Own?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

Weaponized Calvinism? Accused shooter said his salvation was assured, no matter what

At this point, I think reporters have no choice but to dig into the Calvinist themes in the manifesto published by John Earnest, the accused shooter at Chabad of Poway.

It’s crucial to find out, of course, what he learned during his many hours in the pews at Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church. It would appear that Earnest then blended pieces of Calvinist theology into the white supremacist beliefs that he says that he learned elsewhere.

Here is the key question at this point, as I see it: Was there an online website (a specific writer, even) that twisted Calvinist doctrines into the form that Earnest blended into a radicalized, violent white nationalism that embraced some things that he heard at church, while rejecting others?

Let’s take this one step at a time, starting with the following, from my first GetReligion post on this subject:

Yes, reporters … need to note that Earnest said, in that same manifesto, that he didn’t soak up this twisted version of Christianity while frequenting church pews with his family. His hateful, deadly heresies grew out of a private, secret life online, listening to true radicals. Church members tried to talk to him, but he turned away.

Nevertheless, there is no question that reporters will have to deal with two clashing versions of Christianity when covering this story — that white supremacist brand proclaimed in this digital testimony and the Orthodox Presbyterian — uppercase “O” is part of the name — faith taught in his family’s congregation. In this case, the accused gunman did everything that he could to put the word “Christian” into play.

This brings us to two Washington Post stories that can — by savvy readers — be read together. They cover two parts of the same equation.

Here’s the headline on the first one I’d like readers to study: “Ancient hatreds, modern methods: How social media and political division feed attacks on sacred spaces.” And here is the overture, which covers the crucial ground:

Inspired by the devastating impact of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and enabled by the largely unchecked freedoms of social media, individual extremists have launched a steady series of assaults on religious institutions around the world, the latest at a California synagogue. …

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Every year, I write a mid-April column linked to the anniversary of the creation of my national “On Religion” column, which started out as a weekly feature for the Scripps Howard News Service (while I was working for The Rocky Mountain News) and is now carried by the Universal syndicate).

This annual column always focuses on patterns and trends in religion news. I guess you could say that I use this as an update on why I ventured into religion-news work in the first place. This often turns into a “Crossroads” podcast, as well (click here to tune that in).

I’ve been doing that for 31 years now. That’s getting close to a third of a century and, as you would expect, I have this drill down pretty well. Thus, somewhere around the first of the year, I start looking for an event, a book, a provocative op-ed page piece or something else to serve as a hook for this anniversary piece.

This year, I ran into a CNN podcast — the Feb. 20 episode of Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — featuring Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, discussing his new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” This discussion set off all kinds of alarms in my head — so many that it was hard for me to pick one hook for the 31st anniversary column.

Well, then Notre Dame Cathedral caught on fire and, well, lots of journalists started writing pieces that sounded like they were covering a disaster in a museum or some kind of government building — as opposed to a holy place. I simply had to write about that. One thing led to another, and the Notre Dame fire turned into my anniversary column for this year. Here’s a sample:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" — to both.

OK, so what happened to the piece I had planned about the chat between Carney and Stelter?

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Surprise: The New York Times offers balanced look at Betsy DeVos' Christian high school

Surprise: The New York Times offers balanced look at Betsy DeVos' Christian high school

Life still surprises: Where I expected full-on Kellerism -- reporting in which certain "settled" matters are declared unworthy of balanced coverage -- The New York Times offered, well, some degree of balance when writing about a controversial public figure and the intersection of education and faith.

Journey with me now, gentle reader, to the western Michigan shores of Lake Macatawa, where we find the city of Holland and the alma mater of one Betsy Prince, who in 1975 graduated from Holland Christian High School.

As Betsy Prince, the now 59-year-old graduate might not attract much public attention, and certainly not for where she attended high school.

However, as Betsy DeVos, now the U.S. Secretary of Education, there's plenty of interest in such details. As shown in the video clip above, DeVos isn't always warmly embraced by her hearers and is a controversial figure.

Take it awayNew York Times:

The students formed a circle around the Rev. Ray Vanderlaan, who draped himself in a Jewish ceremonial prayer shawl to cap his final lesson to graduating seniors in his discipleship seminar at Holland Christian High School.
“We’re sending you out into a broken world, in part because of my generation,” the minister told the students. Referring to God, he exhorted them to “extend his kingdom.”

Please respect our Commenting Policy

About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully'

About the Washington Post report on SBC's Russell Moore: It's best to simply say, 'Read carefully'

Suffice it to say, I received more than a few emails yesterday asking for my reaction to yesterday's Washington Post story by former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey that ran under this long, detailed, dramatic headline: "Could Southern Baptist Russell Moore lose his job? Churches threaten to pull funds after months of Trump controversy."

One email late last night, which I will decline to share, offered a 500-word plus dissection of the whole piece focusing on this question that many others were asking: Was it accurate to say that the Rev. Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's executive committee, "indicated" that he was prepared to ask Moore -- the denomination's high-profile point man in Washington, D.C. -- to resign on Monday?

As you would imagine, this quickly morphed into discussions of whether Moore -- a consistent #AntiTrump #AntiHillary voice during the madness of 2016 -- was going to be fired.

Out of all of his blunt quotes about Trump, and there are many, here is one from an op-ed in The New York Times that I think expresses what Moore was consistently saying:

Jesus taught his disciples to “count the cost” of following him. We should know, he said, where we’re going and what we’re leaving behind. We should also count the cost of following Donald Trump. To do so would mean that we’ve decided to join the other side of the culture war, that image and celebrity and money and power and social Darwinist “winning” trump the conservation of moral principles and a just society. We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.

As you would imagine (and I say this as someone who was openly #AntiTrump #AntiHillary), more than a few people in Southern Baptist circles argued -- in public and behind the scenes -- that Moore's opposition to Trump was the same thing as offering support to the candidacy of Hillary Clinton.

This brings us to the overture of Bailey's much circulated story, a story that was updated with quite a bit of new material on Monday evening.

Concern is mounting among evangelicals that Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s policy arm, could lose his job following months of backlash over his critiques of President Trump and religious leaders who publicly supported the Republican candidate. Any such move could be explosive for the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, which has been divided over politics, theology and, perhaps most starkly, race.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Reporting Betsy DeVos: Journalists can't seem to get a handle on details of her faith

Betsy DeVos, who President Donald Trump has nominated to be education secretary, will be voted on Tuesday by a Senate committee. She has never been a household word in America and neither have her Calvinist roots, which have been tripping journalists up ever since she was nominated. 

Can this woman, who’s been an advocate of private Christian education and who’s never attended public school (nor have her children), be the new education secretary? A lot of people think not, including 700 students and alumni at Calvin College, her alma mater, according to this Washington Post piece. Others point out that former President Barack Obama never attended public school, either. 

In 2013, Philanthropy Roundtable interviewed her about school reform in a piece that didn’t mention Calvinism or her faith at all. But once she was nominated, everyone was suddenly intensely curious about her beliefs.

Is it true that she wants America’s schools to build “God’s kingdom,” as alleged in a Mother Jones piece? Or is the general media hyperventilating about DeVos’s 15-year-old comments, as our own Bobby Ross asked in December regarding a piece in Politico? 

Politico has circled back to write more on DeVos and even claims some expertise on the nominee as evidenced by the presence of one of its reporters on this talk show. But they've got some major blind spots as to any decent qualities this woman might have. Even the New York Times is saying that she's been sympathetic to gay marriage all along -- a factoid that Politico completely missed.

So, let’s turn to this lengthy profile which has the headline “How Betsy DeVos used God and Amway to take over Michigan politics.”

On election night 2006, Dick DeVos, the bronzed, starched 51-year-old scion of Michigan’s wealthiest family, paced to a lectern in the dim ballroom of the Sheraton Hotel in Lansing to deliver the speech that every candidate dreads.
The Michigan gubernatorial race that year had been a dogfight of personal attacks between DeVos, the Republican nominee, and Democratic Governor Jennifer Granholm. Gloomy, bleached-out b-roll of shuttered factories in anti-Granholm ads made the governor’s sunny economic promise that “You’re gonna be blown away” sound less like an aspiration than a threat. Anti-DeVos ads cut closer to the bone, with one depicting a cartoon DeVos cheering a freighter hauling Michigan jobs to China. It was an unsubtle reference to DeVos’ time as president of Amway, the direct-sales behemoth his family co-founded and co-owns, when he eliminated jobs in Michigan while expanding dramatically in Asia. DeVos ended up personally spending $35 million on the race—the most expensive campaign in Michigan history—and when the votes came in, lost by a crushing 14 points.

Then it zeroes in on the wife.

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Theodicy on the sports page: Did Glover Quin really say God took out Jordy Nelson?

Theodicy on the sports page: Did Glover Quin really say God took out Jordy Nelson?

It's time for another weekend of preseason National Football League games -- those meaningless revenue generators in which the league's top players try to get ready for the new season, while doing everything they can (praying even) not to get hurt.

This brings us, whether most sports reporters know it or not, to centuries of debates about the sovereignty of God.

Yes, one of the hottest topics in sports news this past week (click here to scan the nearly 2,000 news articles) was whether Detroit Lions defensive back Glover Quin was crazy when he said superstar Green Bay Packer wide receiver Jordy Nelson's season-ending knee injury had something to do with God's plan for his life. Looking at this from the viewpoint of Packer fans, you could even say this was another one of those stories that centered on "theodicy" questions (previous GetReligion discussions here) about why God allows evil to exist.

From a journalism perspective, what this sad case study demonstrates is that there are times when it is simply wrong to yank one tiny simplistic soundbite out of a long, complex quotation about a complex topic.

Here is the top of an ESPN feature examining the wreckage in this case:

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- Detroit Lions safety Glover Quin defended himself ... after his comment about the injury to Packers receiver Jordy Nelson and the will of God caused a backlash in social media.
Quin, when asked ... about Nelson's injury, said he respected Nelson and hated to see him hurt. But as part of the answer, Quin also said "God had meant for Jordy to be hurt." The comment was part of a bigger answer on what Quin believes about how and why injuries happen. ...

Please respect our Commenting Policy

UK journo's 'General' Salvation Army confusion

London’s Telegraph newspaper generally does a serviceable job when reporting on religion, but a recent commentary news article contrasting the beliefs of The Salvation Army (they prefer the article capitalized) with those of the rest of Protestantism and those of the Roman Catholic Church, titled, “The Pope and the Salvation Army,” accomplishes nothing, in my view, as much as muddying the waters. One wonders what Pope Francis (shown above greeting General Linda Bond, who retired in June 2013 as the movement’s international leader) or General André Cox, the Army’s current chief executive, would make of it all. First, there’s the confusion — in my mind, at least — as to whether this is a news article or a commentary. It’s labeled as “news” on the Telegraph’s website, but perhaps the word “commentary” or “analysis” or “opinion” appears in the printed version. It may well be intended as a commentary, but it’s not presented that way.

But either as a news story or a commentary, the piece, written by Christopher Howse, a Catholic journalist who did a stint at Britain’s Tablet magazine, fails on several levels in relation to the Army, its beliefs and its reasoning. (Disclosure: I can speak with some authority here, having been a Salvation Army lay church member for 17 years before joining the Seventh-day Adventist Church in 1999. I also married a Salvation Army officer, or pastor, and wrote for several Army publications, including their annual yearbook in 1997.)

There’s little to suggest a hard news angle as the story begins, however:

Please respect our Commenting Policy

Is new Calvinism new news for the New York Times?

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears;I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him; The evil that men do lives after them, The good is oft interred with their bones, So let it be with Caesar …

Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare. Act 3, Scene 2.

Should we bury the New York Times today, or praise it for reporting on the resurgence of Calvinism?

Mind you, the Times does not have the story wrong, but it’s timing is bit off. This story has been making the rounds of the religious and secular press for close to a decade, while claims of a Calvinist revival have appeared every few generations in America.

Please respect our Commenting Policy