Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Religious mystery at heart of Jonestown: Why did this madman's disciples follow him?

Whenever I think about the Jonestown massacre in 1978, I always think of one question.

No. It’s not, “Why did he do it?”

The Rev. Jim Jones was a classic “cult” leader in every sense of the word, in terms of sociology and doctrine (click here for background on that tricky term). He was an egotistical control freak who was used to having his own way. He took a congregation that started out in liberal mainline Protestantism and then took it all the way over the edge.

No, the question that always haunted me was this one: “Why did THEY do it?”

Why did 900-plus people, to use the phrase that changed history, “drink the Kool-Aid”?

What happened inside their heads and their hearts that led them to follow their preacher into what he called “revolutionary suicide,” rather than face legal authorities?

Yes, they were following a madman. But what was Jones preaching that created this hellish tragedy? WHY did they follow him?

That’s the mystery that host Todd Wilken and I explored during this week’s GetReligion “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

It’s pretty clear that religion was at the heart of this tragedy, even though very few mainstream news organizations — especially those blanketing TV screens with the ghoulish images from Jonestown — saw fit to explore that fact. Few, if any, religion-beat specialists got to cover that story.

Why did editors and producers settle for a splashy, simplistic take on Jonestown? That was the question that I explored in my earlier post on this topic: “Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important.”

As I wrote in that earlier post:

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

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Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

Thinking about the Rev. Jim Jones: A classic example of why religion reporters are important

You could make a strong case that GetReligion.org started with the Jonestown Massacre.

Yes, this massacre — a mass “revolutionary suicide” of 900-plus — took place in 1978 and this website launched in 2004.

What’s the connection? Well, in the late 1970s I was trying to work my way into the world of religion writing. I was already talking to the people who would serve as my links to that field — like Louis Moore, then of the Houston Chronicle, the late George Cornell of the Associated Press and others.

When Jonestown took place, here is what I heard these pros saying: This tragedy was the biggest story in the world. Why didn’t editors realize that this was a religion story? Why didn’t major news organizations assign religion-beat specialists to the teams covering this hellish event?

Why didn’t they get it? 

There was no logical explanation for this gap in the coverage (especially in network television). To me, it seemed that newsroom managers were saying something like this: This story is too important to be a religion story. This is real news, bizarre news, semi-political news. Everyone knows that “religion” news isn’t big news.

Yes, there was a deranged minister at the heart of this doomed community. Journalists described him as a kind of “charismatic” neo-messiah, using every fundamentalist Elmer Gantry cliche in the book. OK, so Jones talked about socialism. But he was crazy. He had to be a fundamentalist. Right?

The reality was stranger than that. Jones came from the heart of progressive old-line Protestantism, from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He was well-connected to the edgy, liberal elites of San Francisco — including the LGBTQ pioneer Harvey Milk.

At the moment, the 40th anniversary of this event us getting attention in Hollywood and in the media. As our weekend think piece, consider reading this from The Daily Beast: “The Ballad of Jim Jones: From Socialist Cult ‘Messiah’ to Mass-Killing Monster.” Here is a chunk of that:

A new series from SundanceTV (co-produced by Leonardo DiCaprio) takes an unflinching glimpse at the motivations of one of history’s most notorious cult leaders — for ultimately, that’s what Jonestown and the Peoples Temple became.

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The Washington Post lauds, but never pauses to question, a faith-based 'movement' on the left

The Washington Post lauds, but never pauses to question, a faith-based 'movement' on the left

There's little doubt the Rev. Dr. William Barber II has a following that extends well beyond the confines of the Greeleaf Christian Church, a Disciples of Christ congregation in Goldsboro, N.C., population 35,792 according to a 2017 estimate.

Barber has, for the past decade, organized and led "Moral Monday" protests at the North Carolina state legislature, agitating on issues including health care and immigration. Those protests have generated many arrests, including the 2013 arrest of religion reporter Tim Funk, and have also generated many headlines and features such as the PBS NewsHour clip above.

The pastor was recently the subject of a Washington Post profile that was exceptionally complimentary and uncritical. The basic journalism question here: Was this news or public relations? Can anyone imagine a conservative minister, from a doctrinally conservative flock, receiving this kind of glowing coverage in the public square?

Forget the late Jerry Falwell, Sr., it is Barber who's on track to build a true "moral majority," according to the paper:

Then Barber, an imposing 6-foot-2 with the frame of the high school football player he once was, quickly pivots from Jesus to present-day politics. ...
You can see it, he says, “when they deny the God-given humanity and the human rights of individuals and then stack the courts to protect themselves and their power and then put pornographic sums of money into the political structure in order to dominate it. I can tell you, Caesar still lives.”
Nearly 200 parishioners crowded into the pews punctuate Barber’s high notes with shouts and “Amens!” All who are able rise to their feet.

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Here is today's strange Godbeat AP style question: Are Lutherans also Christians?

Here is today's strange Godbeat AP style question: Are Lutherans also Christians?

Your GetReligionistas love to hear from veteran religion-beat professionals, in part because journalists who have spent years covering this complicated news topic can spot subtle, and often humorous, issues when they pop up in news reports.

Take issues of journalism style, for example. Now, your average blog reader may not get excited about references to tricky issues in the Associate Press Stylebook, but this is the kind of thing that fires up veteran editors and reporters.

After all, if you don’t know your AP style and some church history you can end up printing a story that says that Lutherans aren’t Christians.

Yes, that happened the other day in a Chicago Tribune story that ran with this headline: “County defends surprise church inspections.” Thus, I received this note from a religion-beat veteran:

This caught my eye. … The zoning dispute doesn’t bother me, it’s the weird contrast of Lutheran with Christian. “He was a baseball player before he became an athlete” would be a fair comparison.

Say what? Here is the strange passage in context, right at the top of this business-like story about a rather business-like topic:

For as long as Hillcrest Christian Church has been around, and that's more than 40 years, parishioners and church leaders always assumed the building and grounds were part of Hazel Crest, the community that surrounds the property.
Turns out they were wrong.

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NPR files a toothless story on fired, pregnant professor suing Christian college

NPR files a toothless story on fired, pregnant professor suing Christian college

For those of you who’ve never signed up to work at a religious school, such entities make it very plain before you work there that certain behavior is expected. 

We are talking, of course, about ink-on-paper doctrinal and lifestyle covenants. Whether it’s drinking alcohol, smoking, drinking coffee (in the case of Mormons) or having sex outside of marriage, certain expectations are made very clear to you before you sign a contract to work in this voluntary association, which is what a private school is, of course.

NPR just did a story on one college professor who didn’t get that message.

A former professor at Northwest Christian University in Oregon is suing the school for allegedly firing her for being pregnant and unmarried, violating the faith-based values of the institution. She says it's discrimination.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST: Now a story about a professor in Oregon who says when she told her employer she was pregnant, she got a pink slip instead of congratulations. That's because she worked at a Christian school and because she's not married. NPR's Carrie Johnson reports.
CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Coty Richardson spent four years teaching exercise science at Northwest Christian University. She says she loved in the small classes at the school in Eugene, Ore., and she loved its values and caring environment…
JOHNSON: But Richardson says that tolerance was put to the test earlier this summer when she told her boss she was pregnant.

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Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Here’s a hot story many have missed: Cost of those 91 Episcopal Church lawsuits

Sometimes a news story drags on bit by bit, piece by piece, over the years and becomes so tedious that reporters miss the dramatic cumulative impact. It also doesn't help that long, slow-developing, nuanced religion stories have been known to turn secular editors into pillars of salt.

So it seems with the lawsuits against conservative congregations and regional dioceses that have been quitting the Episcopal Church, mostly to join the Anglican Church in North America, especially since consecration of the first openly partnered gay bishop in 2003.

The Religion Guy confesses he totally missed the eye-popping claim last year that the denomination has spent more than $40 million on lawsuits to win ownership of the dropouts’ buildings, properties, and liquid assets. If that’s anywhere near accurate it surely sets the all-time record for American schisms. And that doesn’t even count the millions come-outers have spent on lawyers. For more info, click here.

Note immediately that these elaborate data were pieced together by an obviously partisan if qualified source, “Anglican Curmudgeon” blogger A.S. Haley. He’s an attorney who specializes in church property law and represents the departing Diocese of San Joaquin in central California.  No reporter should simply accept Haley’s say-so and recycle his data unchecked. But a full accounting, working through his numbers with Episcopal officials, would make a good piece.

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'Beer with Jesus' a growing trend in mainline churches?

If I could have a beer with JesusI’d put my whole paycheck in that jukeboxFill it up with nothing but the good stuffSit somewhere we couldn’t see a clock

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