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Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

Breaking news alert: Nation's religion journalists have gathered in, um, Sin City for #RNA2019

OK, I hope the boss man — GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly — will forgive me for a quick, shorter-than-normal post.

I’m in Las Vegas, either for the Vegas Dance Explosion or the Religion News Association annual conference. I’m trying to remember which one. Both are happening right now at the Westgate Resort and Casino.

So, I flipped a coin and ended up in a big ballroom for the RNA meeting.

But seriously, folks, what better place for a three-day gathering of the nation’s religion journalists than Sin City? Besides me, GetReligion’s Julia Duin is here.

A bunch of interesting and important religion issues are on the agenda for the three-day event. You can follow it all live via the #RNA2019 hashtag on Twitter. Also, the RNA is live-streaming sessions on its Facebook page.

The digital age is something else, allowing anyone with internet access to be a part of this week’s festivities.

Speaking of the digital age, Slate published a fascinating piece this week on “God’s Conversion Rate.” The focus is that “Churches are using targeted ads on social media to convert and recruit.” Now, that’s not exactly breaking news, but I don’t know that I’ve seen a specific story on it, so I enjoyed this one.

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NBC takes on the Epoch Times in bid to push Falun Gong-linked outlet off Facebook

NBC takes on the Epoch Times in bid to push Falun Gong-linked outlet off Facebook

Whenever I see one media outlet go after another, red flags pop up in my mind. The recent spectacle of NBC attacking a conservative newspaper called the Epoch Times is a bizarre head trip in that NBC is pretending to have discovered that the paper was founded by members of the Falun Gong, a spiritualist Chinese group.

“NBC News has exclusively learned that the popular conservative news site The Epoch Times is funded by a Chinese spiritual community called Falun Gong, which hopes to take down the Chinese government,” the network stated on Aug. 20.

Excuse me? Those of us on the religion beat have known about the Epoch Times (ET) for many years. Founded in 2000, it never hid its Falun Gong origins nor its hope that China’s Communist overlords would experience divine retribution.

Why? Ever since 2009, news has been leaking out that the Chinese government is torturing and killing Falun Gong members. I was reporting on this back then, especially after members of Congress began having hearings on Capitol Hill about forced organ “donations.”

Thus, it’s understandable that the ET might be a bit unhappy with the Chinese government and very happy with President Trump who has taken China on. So why has NBC mounted a multi-week campaign against the ET and persuaded Facebook to censor any ET ads, particularly those that support President Trump?

It’s entirely possible that the ET broke Facebook’s rules on transparency and may have deserved its punishment. But NBC’s over-the-top campaign against the Epoch Times goes way beyond whether or not it broke some Facebook rule. No, the newspaper is seen as a dangerous fifth column empowering Trump supporters and for that, it must be taken down.

Let’s start with this NBC newscast that broke the story. The anchor’s opening statement begins as follows:

Exclusive reporting from NBC News linking a Chinese spiritual group footing the bill for some of the biggest pro-Trump advertising on FB. The Epoch Times has spent more than $1.5 million on 11,000 pro-Trump advertisements in the last six months alone. …

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Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Esalen brings its New Age vibe to Big Tech ethical questions

Andrew Marantz of The New Yorker has a bit of fun with the Esalen Institute in a report for the Aug. 26 issue, posted online as “Silicon Valley’s Crisis of Conscience.” Marantz reports on a widely perceived problem in 21st-century America: how well the leaders of Big Tech companies recognize the social harm in their innovations, and whether they intend to decrease that harm. 

Marantz does not flat-out mock Esalen or what happens there, but instead quotes keynote speakers who favor jargon and therapy-speak. The amusing remarks begin by the end of the first paragraph:

“This isn’t a place,” a staffer told me while rolling a joint on a piece of rough-hewn garden furniture. “It’s a diaspora, a guiding light out of our collective darkness, an arrow pointing us toward the best way to be fully human.”

To be clear, it is also a place: twenty-seven acres of Big Sur coastline, laid out lengthwise between California Route 1 and the Pacific, a dazzling three-hour drive south of San Francisco. Its full name is the Esalen Institute—a tax-exempt nonprofit, founded in 1962.

Still, Marantz devotes most of his 6,600 words to reporting the background of what troubles some of tech’s innovators, and how they are trying to limit the damage of social media.

Much of the report centers on Tristan Harris, a former project manager at Google who worked on Gmail:

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Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

Keeping up 2.0: The transgender movement continues to pose media quandaries

The Religion Guy examined aspects of transgender coverage last fall, but this delicate topic continues to pose media quandaries.

We sidestep here the substantive discussion among religious groups, which is well worth attention. All of these issues will show up in coverage of debates inside and among religious groups.

For starters, should journalists apply “nonbinary” pronouns preferred by persons they cover?

The New York Times, long an arbiter of copy desk standards, has experimented with allowing the “mx” identifier. Other proposed neologisms include e.g. thon, hir, ze, zie, zir, xe, xir, xyr, xem, xer, xeir, xis, hirself and zirself. Problem is, even media that want to sidestep old male-female lingo lack substitutes that won’t perplex readers.

The purpose of copy style is to avoid confusion. We see this problem in a paywalled Times item July 5 to conclude the WorldPride celebration, under the hed “’Gay’ - ‘Femme’ - ‘Nonbinary’: How Identity Shaped These 10 New Yorkers.”

One of the spread’s three pages covered a New Yorker born male who now identifies as “nonbinary trans-femme,” but avoids female hormone therapy due to hopes of having children with the female spouse. The Times followed the subject’s insistence on using ambiguous plural pronouns (they, them, their). As a result, head-scratching readers had trouble figuring whether pronouns referred to the individual or the couple.

Given the traditions and structure of the English language, there are no easy solutions here, and copy editors can expect years of debate, agitation and flux.

Th at earlier Guy Memo noted that Facebook recognizes 50-some identities and writers need to know at least key labels beyond the older LGBT as defined by Yale Divinity School:

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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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