Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

Who says journalists hate religion? USA Today welcomes liberal Christian faith of Pete Buttigieg

For nearly three decades, I have taught journalism and mass media in colleges and institutions (even a seminary) linked to conservative forms of Protestantism.

As you would expect, I have heard lots of complaining about the state of journalism in America, especially mainstream media coverage of religion. That’s a topic, of course, that I have been studying since 1981, when I began work on my University of Illinois graduate project (click here to see “Out of the ghetto, into the mainsheets,” the short version that ran in The Quill).

To cut to the chase: I wish I had a dime for every time I have heard a conservative of some stripe say that “journalists hate religion,” or words to that effect.

That is, of course, an inaccurate and simplistic statement. In my experience, many — perhaps most — journalists have no problem with forms of religion that support modernized forms of morality. Long ago, Harvard Law grad and former New York Daily News legal affairs reporter William Proctor put it this way, when I interviewed him about his book “The Gospel According to The New York Times”:

… Critics are wrong if they claim that the New York Times is a bastion of secularism, he stressed. In its own way, the newspaper is crusading to reform society and even to convert wayward "fundamentalists." Thus, when listing the "deadly sins" that are opposed by the Times, he deliberately did not claim that it rejects religious faith. Instead, he said the world's most influential newspaper condemns "the sin of religious certainty."

"Yet here's the irony of it all. The agenda the Times advocates is based on a set of absolute truths," said Proctor. Its leaders are "absolutely sure that the religious groups they consider intolerant and judgmental are absolutely wrong, especially traditional Roman Catholics, evangelicals and most Orthodox Jews. And they are just as convinced that the religious groups that they consider tolerant and progressive are absolutely right."

This brings me to this week’s blitz of coverage of the all-but-announced White House bid of South Bend (Ind.) Mayor Pete Buttigieg. The USA Today headline that really started things rolling stated, “Buttigieg to Pence: If you have a problem with who I am, your quarrel is with my creator.” That USA Today piece, focusing on religious issues, followed a Washington Post reference to the gay politico’s open discussions of his faith.

Let me stress that this is a totally valid story and a quite important one, in part because Buttigieg is working hard to develop a more mainstream form of religious liberalism.

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Dog bites abortion critic: New York Times goes behind the scenes with Roe v. Wade opponents

Dog bites abortion critic: New York Times goes behind the scenes with Roe v. Wade opponents

There's a journalistic adage that a dog biting a man isn't news.

But what about when a dog bites an abortion opponent?

I'm being facetious.

However, a canine chomping his teeth into a 24-year-old law student is just one of the revealing details in the New York Times' recent front-page story on Indiana anti-abortion canvassers. More on the dog bite (fortunately, the victim has a sense of humor about it) in a moment.

First, though, the big picture: This concise, nicely told feature by religion writer Elizabeth Dias goes behind the scenes of what the Times characterizes as "the Ground Game to Reverse Roe v. Wade."

The talented Dias does an exceptional job of painting what feels, to me, like an authentic picture of these activists:

AVON, Ind. — Armed with sunscreen, doorknob fliers and a mission 50 years in the making, the team of activists sporting blue “I Vote Pro-Life” T-shirts fanned out into a web of cul-de-sacs in a subdivision just west of Indianapolis, undeterred by towering rain clouds and 90-degree heat.

It was exactly a week after President Trump had named Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to be his nominee for the Supreme Court, and the group was joking that they had a new sport: Extreme Canvassing.

In short surveys, the teams ask voters about their hopes for Judge Kavanaugh’s confirmation and their opposition to abortion funding. Canvassers have knocked at nearly 1.2 million homes nationwide in recent months, and by November, they are slated to reach their goal of 2 million.

“Whenever I’m feeling tired, I say, ‘I’m doing it for the babies,’” said Kaiti Shannon, 19, as she consulted a mobile app to determine which porch with wind chimes to approach.

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Religious freedom question in Indiana: Can teacher refuse to call transgender student by preferred name?

Religious freedom question in Indiana: Can teacher refuse to call transgender student by preferred name?

All week, we've been talking about the U.S. Supreme Court's 7-2 decision in the Masterpiece Cakeshop case.

We've highlighted the narrow scope of the ruling in favor of Colorado baker Jack Phillips, who refused to make a cake for a same-sex wedding.

We've asked the "Now what?" question.

We've even noted that while everybody has an opinion about the case, not everybody has all the facts.

I won't rehash all the crucial context and background here, so please click at least one or two of the above links if you need a refresher.

But for those who are up to speed, here's a different case that raises some similar and some totally different questions: a public school teacher in Indiana who cites his religious beliefs in refusing to call a transgender student by the child's preferred name.

The Indianapolis Star reports:

A Brownsburg teacher is fighting for his job after he says the district forced him to resign over its transgender student policy.

John Kluge, the former orchestra teacher at Brownsburg High School, said the school district's requirement that teachers call transgender students by their preferred names, rather than those given at birth, goes against his religious beliefs. The requirement, Kluge said, violates his First Amendment rights. 

"I’m being compelled to encourage students in what I believe is something that's a dangerous lifestyle," he said. "I’m fine to teach students with other beliefs, but the fact that teachers are being compelled to speak a certain way is the scary thing."

Advocates for the LGBTQ community say that using a person's preferred name is an issue of respect, not religion or politics. 

"This is not a request for advocacy," said Sam Brinton, head of advocacy and government affairs for The Trevor Project, a national nonprofit focused on suicide prevention in LGBTQ youth. "This is a request for respect."

Phillips, of course, declined to use his creative talents to design a special wedding cake for a gay couple. He cited his Christian belief in marriage as a sacred union between one man and one woman. He owns a private business.

Kluge, on the other hand, works for a public school district. I'd be interested in whether church-state scholars believe he has a legitimate constitutional argument. 

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'God's Plan for Mike Pence': The Atlantic delves into the religion and politics of the vice president

'God's Plan for Mike Pence': The Atlantic delves into the religion and politics of the vice president

Full disclosure: We typically blog on deadline here at GetReligion.

What that means: Sometimes, I'm still trying to digest a story when I critique it.

That's the case as I call your attention to an intriguing piece on Vice President Mike Pence by The Atlantic's McCay Coppins (who has written about his own Mormon faith).

"God's Plan for Mike Pence" is the headline on the newly published profile, in which Coppins analyzes the faith and politics of the former Indiana governor.

The compelling opening:

No man can serve two masters, the Bible teaches, but Mike Pence is giving it his all. It’s a sweltering September afternoon in Anderson, Indiana, and the vice president has returned to his home state to deliver the Good News of the Republicans’ recently unveiled tax plan. The visit is a big deal for Anderson, a fading manufacturing hub about 20 miles outside Muncie that hasn’t hosted a sitting president or vice president in 65 years—a fact noted by several warm-up speakers. To mark this historic civic occasion, the cavernous factory where the event is being held has been transformed. Idle machinery has been shoved to the perimeter to make room for risers and cameras and a gargantuan American flag, which—along with bleachers full of constituents carefully selected for their ethnic diversity and ability to stay awake during speeches about tax policy—will serve as the TV-ready backdrop for Pence’s remarks.
When the time comes, Pence takes the stage and greets the crowd with a booming “Hellooooo, Indiana!” He says he has “just hung up the phone” with Donald Trump and that the president asked him to “say hello.” He delivers this message with a slight chuckle that has a certain, almost subversive quality to it. Watch Pence give enough speeches, and you’ll notice that this often happens when he’s in front of a friendly crowd. He’ll be witnessing to evangelicals at a mega-church, or addressing conservative supporters at a rally, and when the moment comes for him to pass along the president’s well-wishes, the words are invariably accompanied by an amused little chuckle that prompts knowing laughter from the attendees. It’s almost as if, in that brief, barely perceptible moment, Pence is sending a message to those with ears to hear—that he recognizes the absurdity of his situation; that he knows just what sort of man he’s working for; that while things may look bad now, there is a grand purpose at work here, a plan that will manifest itself in due time. Let not your hearts be troubled, he seems to be saying. I’ve got this.

Yes, there's a lot of analysis in this piece, as is typical of The Atlantic.

But sprinkled throughout the story are killer quotes, too, that get to the heart of the subject, such as this one:

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In-depth NPR analysis of Indiana voucher program mostly gets education, but not religion

In-depth NPR analysis of Indiana voucher program mostly gets education, but not religion

Fifteen to 20 years ago, I was much better educated on school choice trends than I am now.

While covering public schools for The Oklahoman in 1999, I did a months-long special project — as part of an Education Writers Association national fellowship — titled "Winners & Losers: School Choice in Oklahoma City." I also covered the school voucher debate that still rages today.

Given my background — ancient as it may be — in education writing, I was interested in an in-depth package that NPR ran last week exploring "The Promise and Peril of School Vouchers" in Indiana.

At first blush, the NPR report struck me as tilted toward the anti-voucher side, partly because of the lede favoring a public school official:

Wendy Robinson wants to make one thing very clear.
As the long-serving superintendent of Fort Wayne public schools, Indiana's largest district, she is not afraid of competition from private schools.
"We've been talking choice in this community and in this school system for almost 40 years," Robinson says. Her downtown office sits in the shadow of the city's grand, Civil War-era Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. In Fort Wayne, a parking lot is the only thing that separates the beating heart of Catholic life from the brains of the city's public schools.
In fact, steeples dominate the skyline of the so-called City of Churches. Fort Wayne has long been a vibrant religious hub, home to more than 350 churches, many of which also run their own schools.
While the city's public and private schools managed, for decades, to co-exist amicably, that changed in 2011, Robinson says. That's when state lawmakers began the Indiana Choice Scholarship Program, a plan to allow low-income students to use vouchers, paid for with public school dollars, to attend private, generally religious schools.
Six years later, Indiana's statewide voucher program is now the largest of its kind in the country and, with President Trump and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos openly encouraging states to embrace private school choice, the story of the Choice Scholarship — how it came to be, how it works and whom it serves — has become a national story of freedom, faith, poverty and politics.

That phrase "paid for with public school dollars" also hit me the wrong way. My question for NPR: Are those "public school dollars" or "taxpayer dollars?" If I'm a parent who pays taxes, why shouldn't I be able to choose where I want my education money to go — be it a public school or a public one?

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Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

Faith in what, exactly? Courier-Journal series on Indiana town battling AIDS pulls up short

One of the most challenging assignments in the world is stuffing 10 pounds of sugar into a five-pound sack.

Reporters face this all the time: A carload of details that must be crammed into a small shopping bag.

Such may well have been the lot of investigative reporter Laura Ungar of the Louisville Courier-Journal, a daily now noted as "part of the USA Today network." After six months of reporting, she delivered a devastating three-part series on the HIV epidemic that still plagues Austin, Indiana, a town less than 40 miles north of the paper's offices, in a region known as "Kentuckiana."

Let me be clear: This is important work touching on a vital topic of national interest, and it deserves a wide readership, I believe. How HIV gripped this town, how addictions to opioids opened the floodgates, how transmission the virus is being fought and what the human and policy consequences are should concern every American. After all, as noted in the two-year-old PBS NewsHour video above, one trucker hiring a prostitute in Austin could subsequently carry the infection hundreds of miles away.

The articles focus on the health care and policy issues, subjects well within the reporter's wheelhouse. But we also get glimpses of faith elements at both ends of the series.

The glimpses left me wanting more.

The first piece begins with a discussion of the Christian physician laboring to help save the town, and the final installment boldly proclaims Austin as "having faith" in the midst of the crisis, Ungar -- or her editors -- seem to hold back when discussing the exact nature of faith that's involved.

The final installment's headline, "Healing Austin: Faith lifts small town from depths of HIV plague," could lead a reader to expect a more detailed discussion of just what that faith is, how it is practiced, what it entails. The subhead is equally promising: "As the outside world moves on, [a] small city draws on faith to save itself from drugs and disease."

Everyone who imagines we're going to get a few tales of tent revivals and the old "sawdust trail," please raise your hand.

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Breaking news from Indy Star: Christian schools tout, um, Christian beliefs and behavior

Breaking news from Indy Star: Christian schools tout, um, Christian beliefs and behavior

Journalists have a real hard time reporting on certain subjects in an evenhanded manner.

Some that come to mind: Abortion. Religious liberty. School vouchers.

I first covered the voucher debate in 1999 as an education reporter for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily.

I'm thinking about the voucher issue again after reading a recent Indianapolis Star that — especially in the headline and lede — seems to favors the opponents. But please tell me if I'm mistaken.

This is the headline that struck me the wrong way:

How taxpayers pay for religious education

And the overly negative lede:

At Colonial Christian, an Indianapolis school on the northeast side that receives public funds through Indiana’s private school voucher program, students are warned they can be kicked out of school for “promoting a homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity.”
At even more voucher-accepting schools, families are required to sign statements of faith as a condition of enrollment, affirming that they hold the same religious beliefs and values as the school.
Theology classes are required for four years at Bishop Chatard High School, as are hours performing service and outreach. And some schools, including Bethesda Christian in Brownsburg, require a recommendation by a pastor.
Those admissions standards reflect arguably the most controversial aspect of Indiana’s voucher program, also known as school choice scholarships. The GOP-driven program allows religious schools to receive public funds. At the same time, those private schools can reject students who don't affirm certain religious precepts — and impose religious requirements on those who are accepted.

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'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

'Cruxifiction': Numbing media reaction after a mayor renames Good Friday

Come with us now to Bloomington, Ind., where Mayor John Hamilton has announcement. He says the city's 700 employees will get two paid days off: Fall Holiday and Spring Holiday.

Don’t recognize those holy days? You may know them as Columbus Day and Good Friday. Hamilton wielded his mayoral power to rechristen them.

To be blunt about it, this is a story built for mainstream media. As usual, though, much of the mainstream news coverage is better at citing the secular side than the religious opposition.

You know, like the New York Daily News:

Hamilton espoused acceptance in a memo to city employees.
"We are terrifically proud of our diverse workforce at the city. That diversity makes us stronger and more representative of the public we proudly serve," he wrote. "These updated names for two days of well-merited time off is another way we can demonstrate our commitment to inclusivity."
Bloomington, home to Indiana University's largest campus, sits in predominantly liberal Monroe County.

Like other accounts, the newspaper also gives a rundown on the meaning behind Columbus Day and Good Friday.

That's nice, but how about some religious voices on the latter? How do church leaders feel about the safe, pastelized reference to Good Friday? It's not like journalists couldn't find local people of faith -- not with Google listing 20 congregations in several denominations in the Bloomington area. Can you say, "Google"?

The issue has even drawn attention abroad. The BBC's version sprouts so many partial quotes, it read almost like sarcasm:

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What did God say? Mike Pence prayed and then changed his mind on needle exchanges

What did God say? Mike Pence prayed and then changed his mind on needle exchanges

What we have here is a rather complex, not-so-shallow, for the most part fair-minded New York Times news feature about (wait for it) a crucial political event in the life of Gov. Mike Pence, the evangelical Protestant running mate of Citizen Donald Trump.

Yes, faithful GetReligion readers, there are times when this story actually allows people close to Pence to talk about issues linked to religious faith and you cannot hear a snarky newsroom Greek chorus in the background. I know that you are all asking the same question: How did this miracle happen?

Actually, it's not a miracle at all because this story fits some rather familiar patterns that can be seen in work at the Gray Lady, as well as in other prestige newsrooms from time to time. What are these patterns?

(1) The story is about a complex and controversial moral and cultural issue -- in this case needle-exchange programs to stop the spread of H.I.V. among drug users -- but it is not an issue linked to the Sexual Revolution.

(2) Savvy evangelicals (Catholics, Mormons, etc.) who work in the public square know that all they have to do to improve their press coverage is to take actions that some would see as progressive and/or offensive to their core constituents in evangelical pews and pulpits.

(3) The politico in question, as part of his or her decision making process, goes to God in prayer and, lo and behold, in this case the voice of God is said to agree with the editorial-page policies of the New York Times.

So take a quick read through the feature that ran under this headline: "Mike Pence’s Response to H.I.V. Outbreak: Prayer, Then a Change of Heart." Do you see what I see?

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