Chuck Colson

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

No Christian fellowship for this prisoner; Washington Post parrots one side (guess which one?)

Prison is not always a happy place for inmates, and that's probably by design. The goal of prisons, which once were called penitentiaries because the aim was for criminals to become penitent over their crimes, is to induce serious reflection and change in the attitudes of prisoners.

When reporting on conflicts over issues of faith behind bars, it might be well for editors and reports to reflect on the basics of journalism: It's best to report all sides of the story, even if official voices may be reluctant to speak because of pending litigation.

The basics: Shari Webber-Dunn, 46, convicted in 1994 of participating in the killing of her estranged husband, the presence of Christian-themed items at the Topeka Correctional Facility in Kansas is too great a burden. The inmate is suing Kansas officials with the aid of the American Humanist Association.

Over at The Washington Post, the resulting coverage presents one side of what must be a two-or-more-sided story:

Church and state are too cozy at the Topeka Correctional Facility, according to a convicted murderer who has spent the past 23 years inside Kansas’s prison system.
Shari Webber-Dunn -- who in 1994 was handed a 40-year-minimum prison sentence for her role in the murder of her estranged husband -- claims in a federal lawsuit filed last week that inmates at Kansas’s only women’s prison are subjected to an endless profusion of Christian imagery and propaganda, from the material posted on bulletin boards to the movies played in the common room.
The net effect, Webber-Dunn claims, adds up to an institutional message “imposing Christian beliefs on inmates” in a clear violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues the prison has created a “coercive atmosphere where inmates are pressured to spend their time in a high religious atmosphere and to participate in religious activities and prayers, thus violating the establishment clause.”

The Post report recounts many of the allegations raised in the lawsuit and summarizes a number of charges, including:

The prison also provides “free Christian literature including monthly church newsletters, daily devotional guides, Bible tracts, various magazine, prayer cards, pamphlets” for the inmates. Yet when Webber-Dunn wanted to buy a 3½-inch statue of the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, she had to hire a lawyer to compel the prison to approve the religious purchase.
The lawsuit asks the U.S. District Court to issue a permanent injunction enjoining the state from continuing to allow Christian practices inside the facility.

Apart from the obligatory official side-step -- "Samir Arif, a Department of Corrections spokesman, declined to comment on the suit, the Topeka Capital-Journal reported" -- the Post makes zero effort to help readers understand any other side of the story.

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Those dueling New York Times editorials (one in news) on Catholics, evangelicals and U.S. politics

Those dueling New York Times editorials (one in news) on Catholics, evangelicals and U.S. politics

Anyone who has spent more than five minutes in Catholic cyberspace in recent weeks has, I am sure, dipped a toe or two into the oceans of ink poured out in commentary about the recent La Civiltà Cattolica essay that ran with the headline, "Evangelical Fundamentalism and Catholic Integralism: A Surprising Ecumenism."

First, note the title's trailblazing work in the field of subtle labeling in public discourse about religion.

We are not talking about mere "evangelicals" or "fundamentalists." In this case we are talking about "evangelical fundamentalism," which would be fundamentalists who preach their fundamentalism with an evangelical zeal?

Anyway, key is that the authors -- universally hailed as allies of Pope Francis -- have taken to the pages of a "Vatican-vetted publication" in an attempt to link decades of high-profile public contacts between culturally, and doctrinally, conservative Protestants and Catholics (as well as Jews, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, etc.) with the painful political chaos surrounding the rise of President Donald Trump. The goal of all those contacts in the past, it appears, was an American theocracy backed with Sharia law, only defended with quotes from the Catholic Catechism and the works of St. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI.

Apparently it took some time for The New York Times to ramp up a doctrinal response to all of this for circulation at the highest levels of mainstream journalism.

The result is some fascinating editorial writing, in the form of a new Times column by Catholic conservative Ross Douthat ("The Vatican’s America Problem") and, the same day, an alleged news story straight from the world of hushed, anonymous conversations in the hidden corners of Rome.

Let's keep this as short as possible, starting with the overture in the "news" piece: "A Vatican Shot Across the Bow for Hard-Line U.S. Catholics."

VATICAN CITY -- Two close associates of Pope Francis have accused American Catholic ultraconservatives of making an alliance of “hate” with evangelical Christians to back President Trump, further alienating a group already out of the Vatican’s good graces.

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Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

Gay and transgender issues underscore a Godbeat rule: Carefully monitor parochial media

In late 2016 the Colson Center for Christian Worldview assembled endorsements from dozens of Christian leaders for a conservative declaration decrying problems with religious freedom with the gay and rapidly emerging transgender issues.

Coverage to date underscores a perennial rule of thumb in religion coverage: Carefully monitor parochial religious media -- and in this case also gay media -- to catch developments that might have broader significance.

Apparently the earliest story on this occurred in the Seattle Gay News (December 2), and then online postings by religious and conservative media. Eventually, mainstream press articles appeared, but in outlets like the Deseret News of Salt Lake City (January 12) and Colorado Springs Gazette (January 13).  As of this writing, The Guy found nothing in major national media (or The Advocate).

Did the sponsors try and fail to gain publicity? Or was this designed to rally activist insiders, not to sway public opinion?

Either way, there’s ample room left for reporters to take a look.

Activists and ideologues continually pepper the media with such petitions on this or that, signed by the highest-profile endorsers they can manage to muster. Amid the glut, why would this document be worth journalistic consideration? Hold that thought till we scan what the text says.

It contends that laws and administrative rulings to protect “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” (SOGI) interests “threaten basic freedoms of religion, conscience, speech, and association” and “violate privacy rights.” Such pressures “attempt to compel citizens to sacrifice their deepest convictions on marriage and what it means to be male and female,” through a range of penalties for both individuals and organizations.

On marriage, it explains, a small business may be willing to “serve everyone” yet in conscience cannot be involved with a same-sex wedding. On the transgender question, people may want “to protect privacy by ensuring persons of the opposite sex do not share showers, locker rooms, restrooms, and other intimate facilities.” 

What’s significant?

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So is 'evangelical Catholic' a religious term or a political term? The honest answer: yes

So is 'evangelical Catholic' a religious term or a political term? The honest answer: yes

After all the the press attention dedicated to Donald Trump's wooing of evangelicals, it's time to get down to what really matters in American politics -- the never-ending battle over Catholics who regularly or semi-regularly visit church pews.

Yes, it helps Democrats if evangelical Protestants are not terribly excited about the GOP nominee and, thus, are more likely to vote with clenched teeth or even to stay home. This time around, Trump has strong supporters among the Religious Right old guard, but he also has strong, strong critics among solid, conservative Christian leaders (as opposed to the small, but press-friendly, world of progressive evangelicals).

But the big game is among Catholic voters. While lapsed and cultural Catholics are solidly in the Democratic Party camp, along with those in the elite "progressive Catholic" camp, the real question is what happens among millions of ordinary Sunday-morning Catholics and the much smaller number of traditional Catholics who are even more dedicated, in terms of participation in daily Mass, Confession and the church's full sacramental life. This is where the true "swing voters" are found. Does Trump have a prayer with those voters? We will see.

What does this have to do with the "evangelical Catholic" tag that has been claimed by Gov. Mike Pence, who got the VP nod from Trump? Hang on, because that connection came up during this week's "Crossroads" podcast conversation with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

The term "evangelical Catholic" is highly controversial, for obvious reasons. In the media, this tends to be a negative term, applied either to people who were raised Catholic (see Pence) and are now evangelicals, or to Catholics who stress the church's ancient, orthodox teachings on moral and social issues on issues such as abortion, euthanasia and sex outside of marriage. Thus, these "evangelical Catholics" tend to be more popular with modern evangelicals than with the elite Catholics who often gather with journalists for cocktail parties on or near the Georgetown University campus.

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NYTimes offers tales of two very different Christian colleges

The Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, Louisiana, has had a reputation as one of the toughest places for criminals to do time in this country. If you go in, and the crime is serious enough, you’re not likely to come out. For years, decades even, the prison was a hotbed of violence and strife.

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