Iowa

Correction: Can a ministry require its leaders to be 'Christian'?

Correction: Can a ministry require its leaders to be 'Christian'?

Editor’s note: Please see the post correcting a crucial error in this post. Click here to go to that correction.

Yes, the headline for this post contains the word “Christian” inside “scare” quotes.

I did that on purpose, because it’s linked to the journalism point that I want to make about a recent Religion News Service story about a judge’s ruling on a clash between an evangelical campus ministry and the University of Iowa. The report contains lots of interesting and valid information, but I also think it contains a crucial error that RNS needs to correct.

This problem can be seen in the headline: “InterVarsity can require its leaders to be Christian, judge rules.”

Here’s my question: Did the judge say that it was OK for InterVarsity to require its leaders to be “Christians,” or that it was acceptable for the group require its leaders to affirm a specific set of traditional Christian beliefs on a number of topics, including marriage and sex?

My question: Would officials at the University of Iowa have been happy if some of the InterVarsity leaders were Episcopalians from parishes or dioceses that affirm gay marriage and embrace other doctrines that are consistent with a pro-LGBTQ stance? What if InterVarsity leaders came from other progressive flocks, such as the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America or the United Church of Christ?

I’m thinking that University of Iowa leaders would have accepted InterVarsity having “Christian” leaders, as long as they were liberal Christians whose doctrines were acceptable.

But look at the top of the RNS report (this is long, but essential):

Yes, a Christian student group can require its leaders to be Christian.

That’s the decision a judge reached … in InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA v. the University of Iowa, a lawsuit the evangelical Christian campus ministry brought against the university and several of its leaders after the school booted InterVarsity and other religiously affiliated student groups for requiring their leaders to share their faiths.

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Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

Gray Lady goes neo-tabloid: Evangelicals, Trump, Falwell, Cohen, Tom Arnold, 'cabana boy,' etc.

I think that it’s safe to say that Jerry Falwell, Jr., has had a rough year or two.

I don’t say that as a cheap shot. I say that as someone who has followed the adventures of the Falwell family and Liberty University with great interest since the early 1980s, when elite newsrooms — The New Yorker came first, methinks — started paying serious attention to the late Rev. Jerry Falwell.

Of course, there is a good reason for political reporters and others to dig into Falwell, Jr., affairs. His early decision to endorse Donald Trump, instead of Sen. Ted Cruz, helped create the loud minority of white evangelicals who backed The Donald in early primaries. Without them, including Falwell, Trump doesn’t become the nominee and then, in a lesser-of-two-evils race with Hillary Clinton, squeak into the White House.

So that leads us to a rather interesting — on several levels — piece of neo-tabloid journalism at the New York Times, with this headline: “The Evangelical, the ‘Pool Boy,’ the Comedian and Michael Cohen.” The “evangelical,” of course, is Falwell.

Everything begins and ends with politics, of course, even in a story packed with all kinds of sexy whispers and innuendo about personal scandals. Thus, here is the big summary statement:

Mr. Falwell — who is not a minister and spent years as a lawyer and real estate developer — said his endorsement was based on Mr. Trump’s business experience and leadership qualities. A person close to Mr. Falwell said he made his decision after “consultation with other individuals whose opinions he respects.” But a far more complicated narrative is emerging about the behind-the-scenes maneuvering in the months before that important endorsement.

That backstory, in true Trump-tabloid fashion, features the friendship between Mr. Falwell, his wife and a former pool attendant at the Fontainebleau hotel in Miami Beach; the family’s investment in a gay-friendly youth hostel; purported sexually revealing photographs involving the Falwells; and an attempted hush-money arrangement engineered by the president’s former fixer, Michael Cohen.

The revelations have arisen from a lawsuit filed against the Falwells in Florida; the investigation into Mr. Cohen by federal prosecutors in New York; and the gonzo-style tactics of the comedian and actor Tom Arnold.

Basically, this story is built on real estate and court documents (that’s the solid stuff), along with a crazy quilt of materials from sources like Cohen, reality-TV wannabe Arnold, BuzzFeed and a pivotal anonymous source (allegedly) close to Falwell who readers are told next to nothing about, even though he/she is crucial to this article’s credibility.

One key anonymous source? That’s right.

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Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Covering 'flyover' America: Did CNN's Brian Stelter say the press just doesn't 'get' religion?

Every year, I write a mid-April column linked to the anniversary of the creation of my national “On Religion” column, which started out as a weekly feature for the Scripps Howard News Service (while I was working for The Rocky Mountain News) and is now carried by the Universal syndicate).

This annual column always focuses on patterns and trends in religion news. I guess you could say that I use this as an update on why I ventured into religion-news work in the first place. This often turns into a “Crossroads” podcast, as well (click here to tune that in).

I’ve been doing that for 31 years now. That’s getting close to a third of a century and, as you would expect, I have this drill down pretty well. Thus, somewhere around the first of the year, I start looking for an event, a book, a provocative op-ed page piece or something else to serve as a hook for this anniversary piece.

This year, I ran into a CNN podcast — the Feb. 20 episode of Reliable Sources with Brian Stelter — featuring Timothy P. Carney of The Washington Examiner, discussing his new book “Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse.” This discussion set off all kinds of alarms in my head — so many that it was hard for me to pick one hook for the 31st anniversary column.

Well, then Notre Dame Cathedral caught on fire and, well, lots of journalists started writing pieces that sounded like they were covering a disaster in a museum or some kind of government building — as opposed to a holy place. I simply had to write about that. One thing led to another, and the Notre Dame fire turned into my anniversary column for this year. Here’s a sample:

… American television networks solemnly told viewers that "art," "artifacts" and "works of art" had been retrieved from this iconic structure at the heart of Paris. In a major story about the fire, The New York Times noted that Notre Dame Cathedral had "for centuries … enshrined an evolving notion of Frenchness."

That's an interesting way to describe the world's second most famous Catholic cathedral, after St. Peter's in Rome. Then again, is a container of what Catholics believe is bread consecrated to be the Body of Christ best described as a "cultural artifact"? Is "in shock" the best way to describe Parisians praying the Rosary and singing "Ave Maria"?

For several decades, I have been asking these kinds of questions while covering religion news and studying how our mass media struggle with religion. This past week marked my 31st anniversary writing this national "On Religion" column.

Was the Notre Dame catastrophe a "religion" story or a drama linked to cultural changes in post-Christian France? I think the answer is "yes" — to both.

OK, so what happened to the piece I had planned about the chat between Carney and Stelter?

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Monday Mix: Pittsburgh shooting, hate that kills, Sutherland Springs, white nationalism, 'double lives'

Monday Mix: Pittsburgh shooting, hate that kills, Sutherland Springs, white nationalism, 'double lives'

Surprised? No.

Numb? Yes.

After a weekend marred by yet another mass shooting in America, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s front page pays tribute to the victims in a special way today.

Welcome to another edition of the Monday Mix, where we focus on headlines and insights you might have missed from the weekend and late in the week.

The fine print: Just because we include a headline here doesn't mean we won't offer additional analysis in a different post, particularly if it's a major story. In fact, if you read a piece linked here and have questions or concerns that we might address, please don't hesitate to comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion. The goal here is to point at important news and say, "Hey, look at this."

Three weekend reads

1. "The day closed with 3,000 people attending a vigil for the dead and wounded at the intersection of Murray and Forbes avenues.” GetReligion’s Julia Duin, who used to live in Pittsburgh, has a helpful overview of news coverage of the synagogue shooting.

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Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader

Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader

Last week, I critiqued the New York Times' front-page coverage of the "Church vs. Church" immigration debate in an Iowa town.

In that post, I lamented that the pastors of three leading evangelical churches in that community "declined repeated requests over several weeks seeking comment," according to the Times.

Without a strong religious voice supportive of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, the story ended up feeling slanted and incomplete, I noted. But I stressed that the Times couldn't be blamed, given that it made a strong attempt to talk to the pastors.

Shockingly enough, not everybody agreed with my take.

Reader Edward Dougherty replied with this comment:

Mr. Ross

It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.

This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

My response: I'm not necessarily surprised they didn't talk. But I don't think silence is the best approach when contacted by a reporter. Perhaps this is my own bias talking (I am a journalist, after all), but refusing to talk gives the impression, in my humble opinion, that the person contacted has something to hide.

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'Church vs. Church': New York Times delves into the biblical debate over immigration in Iowa town

'Church vs. Church': New York Times delves into the biblical debate over immigration in Iowa town

"Church vs. Church in a Town Split by an Immigration Raid," said the headline on a front-page article in Wednesday's New York Times.

That certainly sounds like a religion story.

To its credit, the Times highlights the faith angle right up top and devotes a fair amount of ink to it. There's much to like about this in-depth report. But for a reason I'll explain in a moment — a reason not entirely the newspaper's fault — the piece failed to satisfy me completely.

Before I get into that, though, let's start with the strong lede:

MOUNT PLEASANT, Iowa — In the days after immigration agents raided a dusty concrete plant on the west side of town, seizing 32 men from Mexico and Central America, the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church, got into an impassioned argument on his Facebook page.

“The Bible doesn’t promote helping criminals!!!!” a Trump supporter wrote.

Mr. Hegar answered with Leviticus: “When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.”

The Trump supporter came back with the passage in the Gospel of Mark about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and added for good measure: “Immigration laws are good and Godly! We elected our leaders and God allowed it.”

President Trump’s immigration crackdown has been promoted with biblical righteousness by senior members of his administration, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions. And in heartland communities where the president is popular, the crackdown is often debated — by supporters and critics alike — through the lens of Christian morality.

After offering background both on the Iowa town and the national immigration debate, the Times returns to the Bible question:

Mr. Hegar, a Texan who served four years in the Marines before attending a Presbyterian seminary, finally asked the Trump supporter he was debating on Facebook: “Which Scripture do we obey?”

He answered himself: “The one from Jesus to ‘Do unto others’ is what we choose.”

That's good stuff — the kind of excellent detail found in the best journalism.

But here's what kept me from loving this story: There was no strong voice on the other side.

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Hey reporters, wanna know what's taught in a public school's Bible class? Ask teachers, students

Hey reporters, wanna know what's taught in a public school's Bible class? Ask teachers, students

I'm always fascinated by news stories about Bible classes in public schools.

I first delved into the subject 20-plus years ago when I wrote a front-page story for The Oklahoman on a debate over elective courses in Bible and religion in the Oklahoma City School District.

In today's post, I want to highlight a Des Moines Register story that goes the extra mile — yes, the reporter actually talked to teachers and students — in reporting on a bill introduced in the Iowa Statehouse.

The Register's lede:

A Statehouse proposal to expand access to Bible literacy classes in Iowa public schools is causing controversy among parents and educators. 
Proponents say classes on the Bible provide important historical or cultural context for students. But opponents say the legislation is a backdoor to teaching Christianity.  
To get more perspective, the Des Moines Register went looking for places where the Bible is already being taught in Iowa classrooms. 
It found a course in one of eastern Iowa's most liberal enclaves: Iowa City. 
Three high schools in Iowa City offer a "Bible as Literature" class.

Now, that opening isn't the most exciting one I've ever read — but it certainly presents the facts in an impartial and straightforward manner.

Keep reading, and the paper offers some nice details from teachers and students about what the class actually encompasses:

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Fried Twinkies? Yes, please. And read this delightful story on a church's state fair food stand

Fried Twinkies? Yes, please. And read this delightful story on a church's state fair food stand

Fried Twinkies, please.

That was my request when I called dibs on critiquing the Des Moines Register's feature on a church's food stand at the Iowa State Fair.

You won't believe how the boss man — tmatt — responded. By saying this: "I am totally a fried pickle chips guy, with ranch dressing."

Repeat after me: Yuck!

But I do agree with tmatt on this: I'd like some fried Oreos to go along with my fried Twinkies. OK? (And in response to my GetReligion colleague Mark Kellner, who asked if my life insurance is paid up, "Boo! And yes, it is.")

Now, about that story: It's delightful — chock-full of nostalgia and revealing details. 

I should warn you that there's no mention of fried Twinkies (I was disappointed, too), but the United Methodist Church featured does serve eggs, bacon, loose meat sandwiches and pie. Lots of pie. (Can anybody tell that I'm writing on an empty stomach?)

Let's start at the top:

There’s a sign-up sheet in the basement of the West Des Moines Methodist Church that looks like the Container Store let loose on a poster board. It’s the king of sign-up sheets, and one glance at its methodically charted grids, tiny boxes, color codes and sticky notes denoting important updates tells part of the story behind the church’s beloved Iowa State Fair food stand.
For 11 days, the church needs 226 volunteers to staff two eight-hour shifts per day, plus a special two-person “clean-up crew” that works for two hours after the fair closes. Each of these volunteers will be pummeled with more numbers as the fair goes on: 350 egg sandwiches need to be ready by 6 a.m., each plate of biscuits and gravy gets two biscuits and, most importantly, every pie should yield exactly seven slices.
But figures tell only part of this storied stand’s tale; the other portion is less analytical and more spiritual. The West Des Moines Methodist Church is the last remaining Christian organization to host an eatery on the fairgrounds, making them the final vestige in a church food stand tradition that stretches back to the very first fair. Vowing to return every year they’re able, church members see staying open as a duty not just for themselves, but for the many religious stands that came before.
“It's a State Fair staple that has become a tradition for our fairgoers,” fair CEO Gary Slater said of the stand. “They do things the old-fashioned way, and people know, when you go down to the West Des Moines Methodist stand, they are going to serve you right."

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Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

Spotting a religion ghost in New York Times water-cooler zinger on non-Trump GOP options

This had to be last weekend's chatter-producing headline in the tense territory defined by the DC Beltway. If you missed it, the New York Times proclaimed: "Republican Shadow Campaign for 2020 Takes Shape as Trump Doubts Grow."

Let me stress that this story was produced by the political desk, with zero visible contributions from a religion-beat professional. I would argue that this shaped the contents of the story in a negative way, creating a big faith-shaped hole. Thus, this is a classic example of a news story that's haunted by a religion ghost. We say "boo" to that, as always.

The key to the story is the chaos and political dirt that follows President Donald Trump around like the cloud that hovers over the Peanuts character named Pig-Pen. During the campaign, this led some Republicans to openly discuss running a third-party candidate against Trump. Others stressed that they were not voting for Trump, but against Hillary Rodham Clinton. Thus, the story opens like this:

 

WASHINGTON -- Senators Tom Cotton and Ben Sasse have already been to Iowa this year, Gov. John Kasich is eyeing a return visit to New Hampshire, and Mike Pence’s schedule is so full of political events that Republicans joke that he is acting more like a second-term vice president hoping to clear the field than a No. 2 sworn in a little over six months ago.
President Trump’s first term is ostensibly just warming up, but luminaries in his own party have begun what amounts to a shadow campaign for 2020 -- as if the current occupant of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t involved.
The would-be candidates are cultivating some of the party’s most prominent donors, courting conservative interest groups and carefully enhancing their profiles.

Now, there are multiple parallel universes lurking in phrases like the "party's most prominent donors" and "conservative interest groups." Some of the powers hidden in those words are secular. Some of them are linked to groups defined, primarily, by moral, cultural and religious interests.

But let's start with one simple question: If you were looking for the most vocal supporters of Sasse and Cotton, where would you start?

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