Dr. Ben Carson

A Monday-morning quarterback re-examines a foggy religion news forecast for 2016

A Monday-morning quarterback re-examines a foggy religion news forecast for 2016

This Memo must begin with a confession.

The Religion Guy was among countless newsies who thought Donald Trump would lose. He figured it was close, Trump would win Ohio and Iowa, and had a good shot in Florida and North Carolina. But it didn’t seem likely (to say the least) the president-elect could grab Wisconsin, Michigan (where The Guy went to college), Pennsylvania (where his in-laws live) and fall only 1.5 percent short in Minnesota (that super-blue land of Hubert Humphrey and Walter Mondale). 

Reminders of fallibility are necessary as The Guy turns Monday-morning quarterback and re-examines the forecast for 2016 by the team of pros at www.religionlink.com, an essential resource on the beat sponsored by our Religion Newswriters Foundation. (Tax-deductible donations welcomed.) Its Web postings are especially helpful in listing knowledgeable observers and advocates for reporters.

Naturally, ReligionLink led with the election. On the January day its 2016 forecast appeared, the RealClearPolitics poll average among Republicans put Trump first with 35 percent, followed by three rivals with substantial evangelical appeal who together claimed 38.3 percent: Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson, in that order. Uh, that was essentially “white evangelical” appeal, due to African-Americans’ Democratic fealty.

ReligionLink cited Rubio’s pitch to evangelicals but ignored the devout Cruz and Carson.

Remarkably, Trump’s candidacy was not mentioned.

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One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

 One more time: What explains enthusiasm among many evangelicals for Trump?

On Super Tuesday, Donald Trump easily swept the four states with the heaviest majorities of Protestants who consider themselves “evangelicals” -- Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia.  

So the campaign’s major religious puzzle -- likely to be pondered come 2020 and 2024 -- continues to be how to explain Trump’s appeal to Bible Belters.

Yes, Trump brags that he’s either a “strong Christian,” “good Christian” or “great Christian.” Many GOP voters don’t buy it. And they don’t care. Pew Research Center polling in January showed only 44 percent of Republicans and Republican “leaners” see Trump as either “very” or “somewhat” religious, while 24 percent said “not too” religious and 23 percent “not at all.”

That’s far below the “very” or “somewhat religious” image of Marco Rubio (at 70 percent) who’d be the party’s first Catholic nominee, Baptist Ted Cruz (76 percent) and Seventh-day Adventist Dr. Ben Carson (80 percent). Anglican John Kasich was not listed.

An anti-Trump evangelical who worked in the Bush 43 White House, Peter Wehner, posed the question in a harsh New York Times piece: “Mr. Trump’s character is antithetical to many of the qualities evangelicals should prize in a political leader.” Their backing for “a moral degenerate” is “inexplicable” and will do “incalculable damage to their witness.” Many such words are being tossed about in religious, journalistic, and political circles.

Observers who hate Christians, or evangelicals, or social conservatives, or political conservatives, or Republicans, have a ready answer: The GOP and especially its religious ranks are chock full of creeps, fools, and racists.

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New York Times takes another look at Ben Carson, offering perception without the snark

New York Times takes another look at Ben Carson, offering perception without the snark

Ben Carson may be the most openly religious candidate in the still-crowded GOP presidential field, but his poll numbers have recently taken a slide down into the single digits and he's facing a David-vs.-Goliath battle to hold on.

On Thursday, the New York Times gave us a view of what's happening behind the scenes in a campaign that once soared. As you would imagine, religion has a lot to do with this story and, suddenly, the tone of the coverage has become less snarky.

DES MOINES -- As Ben Carson got ready for a television interview beside the pulpit of a Pentecostal church this week, campaign aides asked his supporters to move across the room and sit in the empty pews behind him.
They wanted the campaign gathering to appear full, but few of the voters who had turned up for the event could hear the soft-spoken Mr. Carson explain how he is on the upswing in Iowa. Some wandered away in disappointment.
“I thought he would be louder,” said Jody Kunanan, who drove from Ankeny, Iowa, to see Mr. Carson. Still, she remains hopeful that he will somehow pull out a victory in the state next week despite polling in the single digits.
Such is life for the Carson campaign these days, where disappointment and frustration have overtaken last year’s sense of optimism. … “It is much better to do what’s right and lose an election than to do what’s politically expedient and lose your soul,” Mr. Carson said with a sense of resignation during a Tuesday night event that mixed a campaign pitch with a Christian prayer service.

We learn later that the Pentecostal church is an Assembly of God congregation. The piece goes on to say he’s hoping to pick up the evangelical Christians and social conservatives who once went for Sen. Rick Santorum and Gov. Mike Huckabee. There are quotes from religious Iowans about praying for the Carson campaign and information about how evangelical leaders are opting for Donald Trump and Sen. Ted Cruz and how there’s a new leadership team in place after Carson's original team fell apart.

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That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

 That same old question for 2016: What is an 'evangelical,' anyway?

The Carson- Cruz- Rubio-Trump piety sweepstakes aimed at the vital “evangelical vote” in Iowa has produced recent news that would have been unthinkable a generation ago:

* Businessman Donald Trump brags that “Franklin Graham said incredible things about me” (the evangelist isn’t endorsing anyone), then targets Senator Ted Cruz: “In all fairness, to the best of my knowledge not too many evangelicals come out of Cuba, OK?” Unclear what that means, but it followed Trump’s previous slap at surgeon Carson’s Adventist church after Carson questioned Trump’s faith.

* Preacher’s kid Cruz tells a church rally, “Keep this revival growing. Awaken the body of Christ that we might rise up to pull this country from the abyss,” and quotes the favored Bible verse of evangelical activists, 2 Chronicles 7:14 (“If my people ...”).

* Not to be outdone, Senator Marco Rubio states in an online ad, “Our goal is eternity, the ability to live alongside our Creator and for all time, to accept the free gift of salvation offered to us by Jesus Christ. ... The purpose of our life is to cooperate with God’s plan...“ The Catholic candidate also appoints 15 evangelical, Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Orthodox Jewish notables (e.g. law Professor Michael McConnell, Pastor Rick Warren) as advisors on future religious liberty issues.

* An e-mail blast from Eric Teetsel, late of the Manhattan Declaration now running Rubio’s “faith outreach,” quotes Southern Baptist social-issues spokesman Russell Moore on evangelical constituencies: “Ted Cruz is leading the Jerry Falwell wing, Marco Rubio is leading the Billy Graham wing and Trump is leading the Jimmy Swaggart wing” (the latter a scandal-scarred  televangelist).

Political nose-counters note that in 2012, 57 percent of Iowa voters identified as evangelicals (vs. 22 percent in New Hampshire, the second lowest percentage among states behind only Senator Sanders’ Vermont). Iowa polls show Cruz moving well ahead of Carson and Trump in evangelical support, while CNN says nationwide Trump leads Cruz by 45 to 28 percent among white evangelicals. And the Wall Street Journal reports the Cruz camp thinks there are  90 million U.S. evangelicals (!) of whom 54 million didn’t vote in 2012(!!).

Obviously, both politics and religion reporters need to pursue that ever-challenging question, What is an “evangelical”?

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Houston, we have a problem: What's wrong with all those 'Muslim backlash' stories in the media

Houston, we have a problem: What's wrong with all those 'Muslim backlash' stories in the media

The backlash is back.

Back on the front page, that is.

Before dissecting today's Houston Chronicle story, a little background: After the San Bernardino massacre, the New York Post splashed the inflammatory headline "Muslim Killers" across its tabloid cover. At that time, we noted that — ever since 9/11 — the phrase "Muslim backlash" has entered America's lexicon. 

In follow-up posts, we questioned media reporting a "surge" in anti-Muslim crime without providing hard data to back up that factual claim. Moreover, we pointed out bias by media using the term "Islamophobia" without bothering to define it.

That leads to Houston, where firefighters battled a Christmas Day blaze at a storefront mosque. Investigators called the fire "suspicious," citing multiple points of origin. 

The fire serves as the news peg for the Chronicle's Page A1 report today on anxiety in the area's Muslim community:

Even before investigators determined that a Christmas Day fire at a southwest Houston mosque was set deliberately, Muslims in the Houston area were on edge.
Recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., were followed by threats to area Muslims on social media and elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of the arson at the mosque, local Muslim leaders and public officials are organizing a meeting to try to calm fears and ease tensions. 
M.J. Khan, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said he understands the community’s growing anxiety. 
“Families and children come, and we do take precautions to make sure people are protected and feel safe,” said Khan, whose organization operates the mosque. Still, he added, “These are places of worship, and we cannot make them fortresses.”
The fire broke out at around 2:45 p.m. on Christmas Day at the small mosque inside the Savoy Plaza strip center, near Wilcrest Drive and Bellfort Avenue. About 80 firefighters helped extinguish the blaze, which significantly damaged the worship hall.

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Washington Post visits the enemy's camp: Oh those wild, dangerous Ben Carson voters

Washington Post visits the enemy's camp: Oh those wild, dangerous Ben Carson voters

If you read journals of political news and opinion, then you are very familiar with a feature-story format that I like to call "visiting the house (or camp) of the enemy." What kind of advocacy publication are we talking about? Let's say the old New Republic or Rolling Stone, on the left, or The Weekly Standard or National Review on the right.

In this story, a reporter -- acting like a National Geographic staffer -- visits a strange and exotic type of person and tries to describe them and their tribe in their natural habitat, talking about their strange and maybe scary customs and beliefs.

A key element of this format is that they rarely include the voices of people on the other side of controversial issues that are discussed. The members of the exotic tribe talk and talk and talk and there is never really a response.

Why is this? Because the reporter is the representative of the opposing side and everything the members of the enemy tribe say is being filtered through the worldview of their opponents, framed in ways that make the words extra threatening or ridiculous. You are reading the Rolling Stone version of a gathering of pro-life activists or The Weekly Standard version of a gathering of postmodern gender-studies scholars.

Let me stress that I know this format well because I read, and appreciate, these kinds of publications. When you read In These Times you are reading a liberal point of view that is so strong that it often makes the left uncomfortable. Ditto for World magazine on the right. I appreciate this kind of journalism.

The question for today is this: What is this format doing in The Washington Post?

With these issues in mind, let's look at a few passages from a classic "visiting the house of the enemy" feature that ran under the headline: "Fear, faith and the rise of Ben Carson." Let's start with the lede, which takes a member of the Post national enterprise team deep into the wilds of the Bible Belt:

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Daily Beast approaches satire territory when ‘reviewing’ Carson’s congregation

Daily Beast approaches satire territory when ‘reviewing’ Carson’s congregation

Tina Brown, who founded The Daily Beast, will readily admit the news site’s name is an homage to Evelyn Waugh’s novel “Scoop,” in which the newspaper tub-thumping for war was called “The Beast.”

But Brown’s website approached satire not only in its name when it sent a reporter to poke around a congregation with which this writer is intimately familiar, the Spencerville Seventh-day Adventist Church in Silver Spring, Maryland. In its report, Brown’s reporter demonstrated a breathtaking lack of basic knowledge about religion -- certainly about Christianity -- or even what people do when they go to worship services these days. Click here to read that story.

Disclosure: I’ve been a member at Spencerville since 2003, have attended weekly worship there, and still am on the rolls, not having yet transferred my records to a local Adventist congregation in Utah.

Oh, some fellow named Dr. Ben Carson is a member there, along with his family. You might have heard about his connections to the Seventh-day Adventist faith.

It’s not unusual for the press to poke around the church of a presidential candidate’s choice, especially if that church is either little-known or perhaps controversial. In 2008, Trinity United Church of Christ was put under a media microscope not only because Barack Obama was a member there. but also because the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the pastor, had issued many sermons that were, shall we say, a bit caustic about America and its role in the world. Four years later, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a media-led “Mormon Moment” when Mitt Romney, a lifelong member, returned missionary and former bishop, ran for the presidency.

Now it’s Adventism’s turn.

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From one reporter to another: An insider's primer on Seventh-day Adventism

From one reporter to another: An insider's primer on Seventh-day Adventism

I’ve told this story before, but it bears repeating: At dinner one evening with a Boeing Corporation division president, the topic of my “day job” came up. Because this person, long since retired, was involved with Boeing’s satellite systems, I told him my principal employer at the time had a large satellite network of its own. That employer was the Seventh-day Adventist Church’s world headquarters.

His face lit up: “Oh, you’re the guys with the bicycles.”

I grimaced: this high-level executive, well exposed to the world, thought Adventists tooled around wearing white shirts and name tags. (Nothing wrong with that, but the guys on the bikes most likely are missionaries for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a different group.)

His publicist, who was at the table, piped up: “No, you’re the guys with the magazines that go door to door.”

Mercy. This person --  a former Seattle-area television news reporter, no less -- imagines Seventh-day Adventists don’t celebrate birthdays or take blood transfusions.

Well, if Mr. Now-Retired Boeing person is listening, he probably knows a bit more about Adventism and Adventists, thanks to one Donald J. Trump.

Terry Mattingly asked me, a former GetReligionista and former employee of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists (the Church’s formal name) to offer current Godbeat professionals a few pointers -- from my perspective on both sides of a reporter's notebook -- on covering the religion which claims, among others, Dr. Benjamin S. Carson, M.D., a 2016 GOP Presidential contender, as one of its nearly 19 million members worldwide.

Here goes.

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Some background for Godbeat pros: What is Seventh-day Adventism?

Some background for Godbeat pros: What is Seventh-day Adventism?

RUSSELL’S QUESTION:

Since Donald Trump brought Ben Carson’s religion to the forefront, can you tell us more about the Seventh-day Adventist Church?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Presidential candidate Trump contrasted his own “middle of the road” Presbyterian Church (USA) with Carson’s Seventh-day Adventist Church as a religion “I don’t know about.” That suggested the SDA denomination is not just lesser-known but on the cultural margins and possibly suspect.

This born-in-America faith is indeed distinctive. It’s also a notable success story (while Trump’s “mainline” church declines). SDA global membership reached a million in 1955, 92 years after the founding.

Today the Maryland-based church boasts 18.7 million followers, 94 percent of them outside North America. It gains a million adherents a year through immersion baptisms of youths and adults. It operates 7,579 schools and colleges with 1.8 million students, and 627 healthcare institutions, among the largest such global networks. Members’ tithing is a major emphasis -- and strength. The notably diverse U.S. contingent is 37 percent white.

Carson is, yes, loyally Adventist, though he says that he regrets that his church doesn’t ordain women. Trump’s taunt provoked an article by Utah newsman and adult convert Mark "former GetReligionista" Kellner. Carson is a famed brain surgeon, Kellner noted, but SDA ranks have also included the first surgeon to implant a baboon heart in an infant, the originator of “Tommy John surgery,” and the inventors of proton therapy for breast cancer.

The faith’s 19th Century founders were disciples of self-taught Bible teacher William Miller who believed Jesus Christ’s Second coming would occur on Oct. 22, 1844, a non-event called the “Great Disappointment.” The Adventist faction said Miller was correct that God restored his “sanctuary” in 1844, calculated from biblical Daniel 8:14 with “days” meaning “years.” But they decided Miller was mistaken that Daniel predicted an earthly event.

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