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Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

Mirror image: What if an evangelical politico doxed gay protesters at Family Research Council?

There is a reason that I held off writing about mainstream news coverage of Rep. Brian Sims and his online activism against people praying at his local Planned Parenthood facility.

To be blunt: I was waiting for some mainstream media coverage of this digital drama. The fact that this took several days is really interesting — from a media-analysis point of view.

Let’s look at this through the “mirror image” device that your GetReligionistas have been using for years.

Let’s say that a group of LGBTQ demonstrators decided to stage protests outside the doors of the Family Research Council — peacefully reading selections from the latest version of the Book of Common Prayer. The protesters include teens and an older person who is silently using a rainbow rosary.

Then a politician approaches, perhaps a GOP leader who backs the FRC. Using his smartphone to capture the proceedings for online use, he begins berating the gay activists, using language that focuses on age, race and religious beliefs. This evangelical politico also offers to pay viewers $100 for information on the teen-agers, thus helping evangelical activists to “visit” their homes.

All of this is posted online by this member of the U.S. House of Representatives.

How quickly would this draw major coverage at CNN? How about the New York Times? Note: We’re seeking serious, original coverage, not short Associated Press stories or aggregation reports built on clips from online chatter (see this Washington Post item).

Eventually, The Philadelphia Inquirer — to its credit — followed up on the explosion of Twitter activity on this topic. The lede did use a mild version of the “Republicans pounce!” theme, but took the issue seriously. Here is a key chunk of that breakthrough mainstream-news media report:

In one video, Sims approaches a woman and three girls who appear to be in their teens outside the Planned Parenthood clinic at 12th and Locust Streets and refers to them as “pseudo-Christian protesters who’ve been out here shaming young girls for being here.”

“I’ve got $100 to anyone who will identify any of these three,” Sims says in the video, adding that he is raising money for Planned Parenthood.

The unidentified woman responds, “We’re actually here just praying for the babies.”

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Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

Is this a news story? A new challenge for pastors: Smartphones that just won't leave them alone

If you know anything about the lives of pastors and priests, you know that — when it comes time to help hurting people — they really want to be able to pull aside, slow things down, look into someone’s face and talk things over.

Life does not always allow this, I know.

But my father was a pastor and, at the end of his ministry life, a hospital chaplain who spent most of his time with the parents of children who were fighting cancer.

On the few times I was with him during those hospital shifts, I saw him — over and over — sit in silence with someone, just being there, waiting until they were ready to talk. He was there to help, but mainly he was there to talk, to pray and to wait — for good news or bad news.

It would be hard to imagine a form of human communication that is more different than today’s world of social media apps on smartphones.

That’s why an article that I ran into the other day — via the progressive Baptist News Global website — stopped me dead in my tracks. The headline: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” I posted the article as a think piece here at GetReligion and then decided that I really need to talk to the author, the Rev. John Jay Alvaro, the lead pastor at the First Baptist Church of Pasadena, Calif.

That led to an “On Religion” column this week for the Universal syndicate and, now, to a “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Why did this topic intrigue me so much?

Well, first of all, it would be hard to name a more powerful trend in human communication today than social media and our omnipresent smartphones. That’s news. And Alvaro is convinced that these social-media programs are seriously warping the work of pastors. That’s a claim that would affect thousands of pastors and millions of people. So, yes, I think this topic is a news subject in and of itself.

Here is a large chunk of my column:

His thesis is that the "dumpster fire" of social-media life is making it harder for pastors to love real people.

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Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Thinking about social media: Baptist progressive says pastors should pull the plug -- period

Having watched the entire social-media era, from beginning up to the current craziness, I have a confession to make. I have been shocked that we have not heard more neo-Luddite sermons from the conservative side of the religious world.

I’m not talking about making a case for a full-on Amish withdrawal from the Internet and from social media.

As someone who has taught mass-comm courses in a traditional Christian content — at a seminary and then in two liberal-part colleges — I realize that we are talking about a classic theological puzzle linked to culture. Traditional Christians believe we live in a creation that is both glorious (as created by God) and fallen (touched by sin and The Fall).

Social media can be wonderful or totally evil — sometimes on the same website in the same thread in material submitted by two different people within seconds of one another. We’re talking about a medium a very high ceiling and a very low floor.

I am starting to hear more debates about the role of smartphones (and addictions to them) in a truly religious home.

However, there is another social-media question that I have expected to read more about; Should pastors be active participants in social media?

That brings me to this weekend’s think piece, care of the progressives at Baptist Global Media. The author — John Jay Alvaro — is a Baptist, in Southern California, with a degree from Duke Divinity School (not a normal Southern Baptist seminary education option, to say the least). Click here to visit his website (yes, he has one) about religion and technology.

The headline on this piece: “Pastors and other church leaders: Give up social media. Not for Lent, but forever.” The basic thesis is that pastors need the time to be pastors and that this is, well, an analog, face-to-face calling. This is a pastoral issue, not a theological issue with technology.

Any benefit you perceive social media is giving you pales when compared to the real losses of cultivating your online social presence. It is as simple as that. Or take it from the other direction. If everyone in your congregation got off Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., your ministry and your pastoral life would improve immediately. Well, not immediately. First there would be withdrawal, anger and other addictive reactions. Drugs don’t leave your system peacefully. But it will be worth it.

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Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

Ex-Mormons and Facebook: How the Daily Beast spun a good yarn about digital debates

The Daily Beast isn’t exactly noted for good religion coverage but they sure scored a good one in this piece about ex-Mormons targeting their devout friends with Facebook bombs.

This piece, “Inside the Secret Facebook War for Mormon Hearts and Minds (with a really cool photo illustration combining a Facebook logo with a flood-lit Mormon temple), did what religion reporting is supposed to do well: Take a religious group you may not know much about or talk about a debate among its members and twin it with a popular trend.

Which is what happened here:

In November 2017, a provocation appeared in the Facebook feeds of 3,000 Mormon parishioners. It was a sponsored post crafted in the gauzy style of one of the Mormon church’s own Facebook ads, but addressing a seldom-discussed truth about the early history of the church and its founding patriarch, Joseph Smith. “Why did Joseph marry a 14 year old girl?” the post asked. “The church has answers. Read them here.” Below the text was a photo of a gold wedding band balanced across the inside spine of an open Book of Mormon.

About 1,000 people who saw the Facebook ad clicked on it and were taken to a page deep within the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ website that expounded on the “revelation on plural marriage,” the order from God that was used to sanction polygamy for decades. During that time some male followers of the Latter Day Saint movement took dozens of wives each, disproportionately favoring girls between 14 and 16 years old. Church leaders finally banned polygamy in 1904.

If anyone reading the text thought to wonder why Facebook served them a slice of the most controversial chapter in their religion’s history, they likely chalked it up to the impersonal vagaries of the platform’s profiling algorithms. But they’d be wrong. The ad was very personal. Everyone who saw it was secretly hand-picked by a friend or loved one who had walked away from the LDS church, and now turned to Facebook’s precision ad system in a desperate attempt to explain their spiritual crisis to those they’d left behind.

This isn’t exactly new.

Jews for Jesus used to tell folks — who were scared to approach their Jewish friends or family as to why they’d converted to Christianity — to supply them with their contacts’ snail mail addresses (this was back in the pre-Internet ‘70s) so they could drop them an evangelistic packet that didn’t divulge the source.

The project was called MormonAds, and it was a brief but perhaps unprecedented experiment in targeted religious dissuasion. In four months at the end of 2017, the project targeted more than 5,000 practicing Mormons with messages painstakingly crafted to serve as gentle introductions to the messier elements of LDS history that were glossed over within the church. All the names and email addresses for the campaign came from disillusioned ex-Mormons.

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Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Finally: A decent mainstream news article about the Southern Poverty Law Center

Well. Finally someone wrote a realistic, balanced piece about the work of the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Washington Post Magazine staff writer David Montgomery put together a (roughly) 6,700-word piece that asks whether the SPLC is what it pretends to be — the ultimate (and accurate) judges of hate in America.

It gave ample voice to several of the SPLC’s most prominent critics, including one mainstream evangelical Christian organization that narrowly missed being in a bloodbath because of being labeled a hate organization.

See that speck there?” retired Lt. Gen. William G. “Jerry” Boykin says, directing my gaze to the ceiling of the Family Research Council’s lobby in Washington. I spy a belly-button-size opening in the plaster. “That’s a bullet hole.” … Fired on August 15th, 2012, by Floyd Lee Corkins.” …

Asked by an FBI agent how he came to single out the FRC, Corkins replied: “Southern Poverty Law lists anti-gay groups.” The gunman, who was found to be mentally ill, was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

“He came in here to kill as many of us as possible because he found us listed as a hate group on the Southern Poverty Law Center website,” continues Boykin, FRC’s executive vice president, who is dressed today in a leather vest over a shirt and tie. “We and others like us who are on this ‘hate map’ believe that this is very reckless behavior. … The only thing that we have in common is that we are all conservative organizations. … You know, it would be okay if they just criticized us. … If they wrote op-eds about us and all that. But listing us as a hate group is just a step too far because they put us in the same category as the Ku Klux Klan. And who are they to have a hate-group list anyhow?”

The piece then switches venues to Montgomery, Ala., headquarters of the SPLC, which began in 1971 as a legal aid group, then expanded in the 1980s to monitor Klan groups.

Then the SPLC began widening its definition of hate and extremism.

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What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

What are we to think of 'religious' TV shows that sidesteps the whole God issue?

A late September headline at the Esquire magazine website proclaimed “There Is No God on TV, Only The Good Place.”

Indeed, the clever sitcom of that title, which launched season No. 3 last week, plays around with good and evil, heaven and hell, and even portrays supernatural demons. But God is missing.

This NBC fantasy is just the thing to lure the eyeballs of America’s growing legion of young, religiously unmoored “nones,” in a carefully multicultural fashion that also ignores religious beliefs and practices. Instead, the proceedings are all about a hazy moral philosophy about what makes a good person.

CBS makes a different audience bid with “God Friended Me,” which premiered Sunday. The drama’s lead character Miles (played by Brandon Micheal Hall) is a preacher’s kid turned outspoken atheist. Is the “God” who becomes his Facebook “friend” the actual cosmic God or some human or otherworldly trickster? To find out, Miles enlists his devout bartender sister, a hacker pal, and a journalist, and experiences coincidences that just might be miracles.

Judging from one episode, there may not be much here for religion writers to ponder, and it's hard to guess whether “Friended” can even survive. (Ratings prospects are dimmed by CBS’s inability to set predictable Sunday start times following sports events.) This seems inspiration-drenched programming in the varied tradition of “Highway to Heaven,” “Joan of Arcadia,” “Promised Land,” “Seventh Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” or last season’s short-lived “Kevin (Probably) Saves the World.”

“The Good Place,” by contrast, has somehow managed to establish a niche and win critics’ acclaim by probing Big Questions with a droll touch. Here salvation is earned strictly by performing good deeds instead of faith. That conflicts with an historic 1999 Catholic-Lutheran accord that insists Christianity believes that “by grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part, we are accepted by God” who equips and calls us to “good works.”

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U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

U.S. Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn: Maybe she deserves some balanced press coverage?

I met Marsha Blackburn about 16 years ago when I was in Nashville on business around 2002, when she was running for a U.S. House seat after six years in the Tennessee Senate.

She won that race and has been on the rise ever since. Now she’s the Republican nominee for an open Senate seat and, Tennessee being the red state that it is, her chances of getting it are good except that she’s running against a very likable former governor.

All sorts of folks are watching this race. Some of the coverage frames this conservative candidate in very predictable ways.

The New York Times also did a piece on her recently but the focus was an odd one. The article was more on what she was not saying than on what she was.

KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Inside the Kingsport Chamber of Commerce one morning last month, a few dozen voters sipped coffee and listened for 45 minutes to Representative Marsha Blackburn tick off all the reasons that this traditionally Republican stronghold in northeastern Tennessee should support her in one of the most high-stakes Senate races this year.

She praised President Trump. She warned of an invasion of liberal policies and a Democratic takeover of committees if Republicans lose the Senate. She stressed securing the border, fighting MS-13 and lowering taxes. She highlighted her work as a Republican House member to “get government off your back.”

But one issue was entirely absent — the one that had made Ms. Blackburn famous in Washington, and infamous in Democratic circles: abortion.

We learn that she’s more into state issues these days; no great surprise in that she’s running statewide. Then we see why the Times is interested in her.

It’s a noticeable shift for a politician who three years ago took an incendiary turn in the nation’s culture wars. Amid a divisive battle over the funding of Planned Parenthood, Ms. Blackburn led a congressional committee investigating allegations that the group had tried to illegally profit from the sale of fetal tissue, which the organization denied. Ms. Blackburn fanned the flames by making the audacious charge that the group was selling “baby body parts on demand.”

It was a particularly ugly chapter in a bitter national debate…The episode gained national attention and cemented Ms. Blackburn’s reputation as a hard-right firebrand.

Let’s see: “Incendiary,” “divisive,” “ugly chapter,” “fanned the flames,” “audacious,” “hard-right firebrand.” I see where this is going.

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Does the race card work? Christian school bans long hair for boys, including dreadlocks

Does the race card work? Christian school bans long hair for boys, including dreadlocks

It would be hard to imagine a click-bait story that features more unfortunate stereotypes about race and religion than the USA Today report about the young Florida student who was forbidden to enroll in a small Christian school because of his dreadlocks.

Turn up the social-media heat under this headline: "Florida school receiving death threats after turning away 6-year-old with dreadlocks."

Actually, the Washington Post piece on the same topic went one step further by putting everyone's favorite religion F-word in the headline: "A little boy with dreadlocks enrolled at a fundamentalist Christian school. It didn’t go well."

Let's stick with the USA Today piece, which is more compact and less sensationalistic. Here is the overture:

A private Christian school in Florida is facing backlash after a 6-year-old black child was turned away on his first day of class because of his dreadlocks.

Clinton Stanley Jr. was all set for his first day at A Book’s Christian Academy, but when he arrived, he was denied entry because of his hair. His dad, Clinton Stanley Sr., expressed his frustration in a now-viral video on Facebook Monday.

“My son just got told he cannot attend this school with his hair,” he said in the video. “If that’s not bias, I don’t know what is.”

The question hovering in the air is simple: Is this a case of racial bias at a predominately white Christian school? Hold that thought, because there is a crucial fact here that probably belongs in the lede -- especially with the Post using "fundamentalist" in its headline.

But first, consider this factual question: Was the dreadlocks card played as a racial ace in this case?

As it turns out, the school's policy is clear. USA Today notes:

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How I lost my professional cool and succumbed to gossamer social media satisfaction

How I lost my professional cool and succumbed to gossamer social media satisfaction

GetReligion readers: Allow me to offer my own mea culpa. It’s not for something as juicy -- or as damaging to our  national conversation -- as anything said by Roseanne Barr or Samantha Bee. But given what I do here at GetReligion, it's worth noting.

Before you start reading all my past "Global Wire" posts -- go ahead; I dare you -- it’s not for anything I've posted on this website. Though I’m sure more than a few of you think I should be apologizing for just about everything I’ve posted here over the past three-plus years.

Rather, it's for a story on anti-Semitism in Western Europe produced by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency news service that I reposted on my personal Facebook page. It violated whatever advice I repeat here ad infinitum.

Some respected Facebook friends called me out on the post, and rightly so. Hence, my mea culpa. (More on this below.)

What advice do I refer to: Approach the journalism you consume from a place of media literacy.

Consider what’s missing from a story. Is it meant to play to your fears and biases? Was important context left out? How about alternative viewpoints? Do not let emotions overwhelm your intellect.

Above all, perhaps, don’t further circulate a story that fails the smell test by impulsively reposting it on social media, where the echo chamber is sure to run with it as if it was unquestionable gospel.

I’m a presumed expert on all this -- or so I've convinced my GR bosses. So if only for the sake of this post, please accept that I actually am I, despite this mea culpa.

So just what am I apologizing for?


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