Liberty University

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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Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

Looking for a religion ghost in Jimmy Carter's current clout with Democrats and journalists

This is really a great time — in terms of mainstream media coverage — to be a liberal or “progressive” evangelical.

If you needed proof of this thesis — other than the contents of op-ed pages and wire features — then look no further than the latest political/media comeback by former President Jimmy Carter.

I have followed Carter for decades (I was a Carter volunteer at Baylor University in 1975-76), which is understandable since it’s impossible to report on the role of “born again” Christians in American political life without paying close attention to what Carter believes and when he believed it. He inspired many, many “moderate” Baptists and other evangelicals to take politics seriously.

Here’s a question I have asked for several decades now: Name another American politician — Republican or Democrat — who was willing to cost himself support within his own party by taking a critical stance, of any kind, on abortion. To this day, Carter’s language on abortion makes his party’s leadership nervous (see his remarks last year at Liberty University).

But the former president has certainly evolved on other crucial doctrinal issues. What role has this played in his current popularity with Democrats and, thus, with the press?

Consider this recent feature from the Associated Press: “Jimmy Carter finds a renaissance in 2020 Democratic scramble.” Here is the totally political overture:

ATLANTA (AP) — Jimmy Carter carved an unlikely path to the White House in 1976 and endured humbling defeat after one term. Now, six administrations later, the longest-living chief executive in American history is re-emerging from political obscurity at age 94 to win over his fellow Democrats once again.

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Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

Reuters: Evangelical kingpin Jerry Falwell Jr. sought to hide racy photos he sent to his wife?

We used to joke that the religion beat is sometimes known as the sex beat because of all the peccadilloes and crimes that some religious personalities find themselves in.

But yesterday’s story by Reuters about the theft of some boudoir photos supposedly commissioned by Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. raises that designation to a new level.

Personally, I will never understand anyone who allows sexually intimate photos of any kind to be taken of them — in this case, apparently photos of a husband and/or wife. These things have ways of getting into the hands of people who don’t wish you well. Ask Jeff Bezos to explain this to you if you don’t already know.

I should add that Falwell has denied the Reuters report in an interview with Fox News commentator Todd Starnes. But why didn’t he tell Reuters the same thing?

Read on for my nominee of Weird Religion Story of the Week.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Months before evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr.’s game-changing presidential endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016, Falwell asked Trump fixer Michael Cohen for a personal favor, Cohen said in a recorded conversation reviewed by Reuters.

Falwell, president of Liberty University, one of the world’s largest Christian universities, said someone had come into possession of what Cohen described as racy “personal” photographs — the sort that would typically be kept “between husband and wife,” Cohen said in the taped conversation.

According to a source familiar with Cohen’s thinking, the person who possessed the photos destroyed them after Cohen intervened on the Falwells’ behalf.

Other parts of this taped conversation made the news a week ago (see above video). Why it took this long for reporters to pick up on the Falwell connection puzzles me. The mind goes in odd places trying to imagine just what is in these photos, if this story is true.

Here’s some other questions journalists might want to ask, in addition to valid questions about Jerry Jr. and a Trump lawyer: Who leaked the photos and/or stole them? Is blackmail still a crime? Is there any possibility that some kind of crime has been committed, a crime in which the Falwell family has been wronged?

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A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

A complex evangelical landscape: But Old Gray Lady listens to the same choir, again

Whenever I talk to evangelicals — including the infamous “white evangelicals” of 2016 infamy — I am always amazed at the wide variety of viewpoints that I hear about issues linked to politics.

Note that I said “issues linked to politics,” instead of saying “politics” — period.

That’s crucial. For millions of Americans, and not just evangelical Protestants, it’s easier to talk about the details of their faith and their doctrinal beliefs than it is to discuss the horse-race details of party politics. For many, their political choices are too painful to discuss. They are battling to find ways to act on their religious convictions in a hellish political landscape.

When it comes to moral and cultural issues, they know what they believe. When it comes to political realities, they tend to be rather cynical or depressed about their choices.

These complex realities are not, however, what I find when I click into the hallowed digital pages of The New York Times. Consider this recent religion feature that ran with the headline, “Evangelicals, Looking to 2020, Face the Limits of Their Base.” The overture:

WASHINGTON — After Democrats delivered a resounding counterpunch to President Trump at the polls, one of his most reliable voting blocs — social conservatives — now faces the repercussions of its uncompromising support for Mr. Trump’s agenda.

That result is mixed: Social conservatives are celebrating a slightly expanded Republican majority in the Senate, which advances their top priority, confirming conservative judges, as well as their anti-abortion rights agenda. But steep Republican losses in the House, particularly in suburban areas, have some strategists reflecting on how to proceed as they pivot their efforts to re-electing Mr. Trump in 2020.

“Social conservatives need to maximize turnout from the base and expand the map by stressing the softer side of the faith agenda: education reform, immigration and criminal justice reform, and anti-poverty measures,” said Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which has extensive outreach to conservative evangelicals in battlegrounds across the country.

Let’s pause for a moment and think about who is speaking, in these framework remarks.

Who is Ralph Reed? If you were describing his stature in the world of modern evangelicalism, would you say that he is a leader among old-school evangelicals or the young-blood networks that represent the future? Is he the rare person who has stature in both camps?

I ask this for a simple reason.

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RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

RNS: Religious Left rallies to stop Kavanaugh. Religious Right sitting this one out?

Let’s have a short religion-beat test.

When a story is built on media contacts with the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalists, you are really with what part of the cultural and doctrinal part of the marketplace of American religion?

(Cue the think music)

I see that hand on a religion-news desk! These are outspoken churches on the Religious Left. The United Church of Christ is the elite flock that was home to President Barack Obama.

Now, would you be surprised to find out, on cultural issues, group’s such as the National Council of Churches, the National Council of Jewish Women and Muslim networks linked to the pink-hat Women’s March hail from the same basic zip code, in terms of moral, social and religious issues?

Now, what else do these groups have in common? Well, they are all, to be blunt, they are all tiny, in terms of the size of their flocks. However, they have lots of connections in the media-rich Acela Zone between Washington, D.C., and New York City. Odds are, when you see headlines that say “Religious groups” gather to protest this, that or the other, you are talking about these groups, often accompanied by progressive Catholic nuns dressed in pant suits.

What’s my point? Well, it is not that reporters should avoid covering them. GetReligion has been calling for increased coverage of the Religious Left — especially on religious issues, not just political issues — since we went online in 2004.

No, liberal believers matter. However, experienced reporters know that these groups are small and that portraying them as diverse, influential groups that represent mainline Christianity is, well, just about as fair as saying First Baptist Church, Dallas, and Liberty University are perfect voices for all of American evangelicalism.

That brings us to a very normal Religion News Service story with this headline: “After Senate clash, Kavanaugh nomination an occasion for prayer.” The overture:

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Fake News? The Economist team doesn't know where Liberty University is located

Fake News? The Economist team doesn't know where Liberty University is located

If you were going to create a Top 10 list of high-quality journalism institutions in our world today, surely The Economist would be in there somewhere.

Now let's put a different spin on that. If you were going to create a list of prestigious publications that do not deserve the label "Fake News," I would imagine that The Economist would make that list.

So what are you supposed to do when you hit the spew-your-coffee moment in this new piece that was published in that elite magazine over in England, the feature that ran under the headline:

Faith and higher education can intersect in many different ways

An ever-shifting relationship between campus and church

The piece opens with a discussion of a recent address at Oxford University by Father John Jenkins, president of the University of Notre Dame, on the subject of academic and intellectual freedom.

Then there is this piece of analysis, which contains the spew-worthy error mentioned earlier. Wait for it.

To some American conservatives, this emphasis on free-ranging inquiry, rather than the axioms of faith, will only confirm what they suspected: that Notre Dame and other historically Catholic colleges are drifting far from their Christian roots and are on the road to becoming virtually identical to secular places of learning. But the real situation is more interesting. In the ecology of American higher education, there are many different relationships with religion. There are zealously Christian establishments like Liberty University in Tennessee, which may be the largest non-profit college in the world, with 15,000 students at its Lynchburg campus and another 110,000 engaged in online learning. First-year students take Bible classes and there is a “code of honour” that bars extra-marital sex.

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A key Paige Patterson critic is hit by bus: Tennessean takes gentle look at 'Why?' angle

A key Paige Patterson critic is hit by bus: Tennessean takes gentle look at 'Why?' angle

One of the most dramatic sidebars to the controversies surrounding #SBCToo and the Rev. Paige Patterson was the freakish timing of a serious accident in the life of one of his most articulate female critics within evangelicalism.

Karen Swallow Prior is one of those individuals whose existence perfectly illustrates why your GetReligionistas are not fond of sticking shallow labels on complex religious believers.

First of all, she is professor of English at Liberty University. Then again, she used to identify herself as a conservative feminist, which is a conversation starter, to say the least.

I first ran into her back in 2003 when I was writing about a Southern Baptist congregation that created a service blending Celtic liturgy and symbols with evangelical content ("Postmodern Celtic Baptists). Prior's research into liturgy and poetry was at the heart of that effort.

Now this, care of a recent story in The Tennessean:

Karen Swallow Prior helped raise the voices of thousands of women who called out a revered Southern Baptist leader for his counsel on women, abuse and divorce. 

The same day a Texas seminary removed him as its president, Prior got hit by a bus. 

The timing of the freak accident in Nashville felt uncanny to her. Prior and others advocating alongside her for better treatment of women in the evangelical denomination say they saw a parallel between the bus wrecking her body and the misogynistic forces of the church causing brokenness among women. 

The symbolism they found in the May 23 crash that played out at the intersection of Church Street and 20th Avenue North resonated with Prior on a visceral level. 

"There's no winners, and just talking about it and speaking on behalf of others was just difficult. It's an ugly situation," Prior said ... from her room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "Then, just to be slammed by a bus literally, physically in the midst of that moment, this was just eerie."

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Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Evangelical colleges have much to say about the Billy Graham epoch and its aftermath

Pundits say evangelical Protestantism, so long led by the late Billy Graham, is faltering in the United States (though not overseas) and split over Donald Trump-ism in politics and morals as well as certain religious differences.

Upon Graham’s passing, by handy coincidence, journalists can obtain fresh insight from the new “Fundamentalist U: Keeping the Faith in American Higher Education” (Oxford University Press) by Adam Laats, professor of educational history at Binghamton University. Unlike many scholars not personally part of  this subculture, Laats takes these believers seriously on their own terms, minus scholarly condescension.

Laats thinks dozens of Christian colleges undergird the movement’s cultural impact and political conservatism in the U.S. They also demonstrate the interrelations between militant “fundamentalists” and the somewhat more open “evangelicals.” His book and its very title apply those two tricky terms confusingly and interchangeably, but the details provide writers valuable context on the historical definitions.

He spent endless hours in archives at six non-denominational campuses to document their achievements and conflicts. (Laats largely bypasses theologically similar denominational colleges, seminaries, and ministries on secular campuses.) The findings would enrich a journalistic visit to profile one of these six. Fresh reporting will be essential because the book’s narrative largely trails off  before recent developments.

Here are the campuses, listed in order of founding.

* Wheaton College (of Illinois, not the Massachusetts Wheaton):  Graham’s alma mater has been a liberal-arts college throughout history that traces to 1853 with re-founding by slavery foes in Lincoln’s 1860. Selective and often dubbed the movement’s equivalent of Harvard, it leads evangelicalism’s elite vs. fundamentalism. But it remains staunchly conservative, recently forcing out a tenured professor over affinity with Islam, and winning federal court exemption from Obamacare’s contraception mandate.

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Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

Religion-news story of the year? Caution is wise with alleged biblical bombshells

The mass media often turn to scriptural stuff as the world’s Christians celebrate the resurrection of Jesus (on April 1 this year, or one week later for the Orthodox).

This Eastertide a long-brewing story, largely ignored by the media, could be the biggest biblical bombshell since a lad accidentally stumbled upon the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.

Or not.

Scholars are supposedly prepared to announce an astonishing discovery, a Greek manuscript of the New Testament’s Gospel of Mark written down in the 1st Century A.D. That would mean  Mark -- and implicitly other Gospels –- were compiled when numerous eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life would have been alive, thus buttressing authenticity.   

The Guy recommends caution, since sensational historical claims in recent times have flopped, or were misconstrued, and embarrassed proponents on both the religious right and left. With careful contexting, reporters should attempt to break this news  (see tips below) or at least be prepared to pounce when someone else does.  

The oldest Mark manuscript we currently know came some 150 years later than this. To date, the earliest surviving New Testament text is the celebrated Rylands Papyrus 52 (“P52”), at England’s University of Manchester, found in Egypt in 1920 and identified in 1934. Experts date P52 in the mid-2nd Century and perhaps as early as A.D. 125. This fragment of John 18:31-33, 37-38 confirmed scholars’ prior consensus that John’s Gospel originated in the late 1st Century.

Internet chatter about the Mark text comes mostly from biblical conservatives, who are understandably enthused. The first hint The Religion Guy unearthed was this opaque 2011 tweet from Scott Carroll, a professor at an online Christian school: “For over 100 years the earliest known text of the New Testament has been the so-called John Rylands Papyrus. Not any more. Stay tuned.”  Years later, Carroll said he had seen this actual Mark text two times.

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