Politico

Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Friday Five: Jarrid Wilson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Wedgwood Baptist anniversary, Ostling on Godbeat

Welcome to the published-later-in-the-day-than-usual edition of Friday Five.

I’m on a reporting trip to Tennessee with my regular job, and GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly graciously gave me extra time to write this.

After that brief intro, let’s dive right into the Friday Five:

1. Religion story of the week: This is the story that I just can’t get out of my mind: the death of pastor, author and mental health advocate Jarrid Wilson by suicide.

In a post Thursday, tmatt delved into Religion News Service’s initial coverage of the tragedy. Look for much more discussion in a post Saturday related to GR’s weekly podcast.

2. Most popular GetReligion post: My post declaring that “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously” was our No. 1 analysis of the week.

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Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Falwell Jr., Liberty University share GetReligion's post on Politico story — but did they actually read it?

Another bizarre twist in the Jerry Falwell Jr. story came Tuesday when the Liberty University president accused former board members and employees of an “attempted coup.”

That claim came a day after a long, negative Politico piece on Falwell quoted two dozen anonymous sources characterized as “current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell.”

How bad are things for Falwell and Liberty?

Well, both of their official Twitter accounts tweeted my GetReligion post from Monday in which I declared, “Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously.”

If you missed that post, you really should read it before finishing this one. What I am about to say will make much more sense with that background in mind. Also, that post has generated a lot of good discussion along with a few typical troll comments from people who obviously didn’t take time to read what I wrote.

Of course, a few folks on Twitter (here and here, for example) asked if Falwell and Liberty actually read what I wrote.

After all, my post was no fan letter to Falwell.

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Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Sorry, but Politico's long exposé on Jerry Falwell Jr. lacks adequate named sources to be taken seriously

Undoubtedly, many critics of Jerry Falwell Jr. will love Politico’s long takedown of the controversial Liberty University president.

On Twitter, Jonathan Merritt, for example, called the piece published today a “blistering investigative report” for which the author should win an award.

“It's impossible to pick just one thing to highlight in this … cascade of scoops,” said Ruth Graham.

I’m no Falwell fan myself, and I’d be inclined to agree with the tweets above, except for one major, glaring concern: The writer relies almost entirely on anonymous sources.

“‘Someone’s Gotta Tell the Freakin’ Truth’,” screams Politico’s headline. “Jerry Falwell’s Aides Break Their Silence.”

But they don’t really break their silence — in terms of going on the record and criticizing Falwell.

Politico sets the scene like this:

At Liberty University, all anyone can talk about is Jerry Falwell Jr. Just not in public.

“When he does stupid stuff, people will mention it to others they consider confidants and not keep it totally secret,” a trusted adviser to Falwell, the school’s president and chancellor, told me. “But they won’t rat him out.”

That’s beginning to change.

Over the past year, Falwell, a prominent evangelical leader and supporter of President Donald Trump, has come under increasing scrutiny. News outlets have reported on business deals by Liberty University benefiting Falwell’s friends. Trump’s former personal attorney Michael Cohen claimed that he had helped Falwell clean up racy “personal” photographs.

Based on scores of new interviews and documents obtained for this article, concerns about Falwell’s behavior go well beyond that—and it’s causing longtime, loyal Liberty University officials to rapidly lose faith in him.

More than two dozen current and former high-ranking Liberty University officials and close associates of Falwell spoke to me or provided documents for this article, opening up—for the first time at an institution so intimately associated with the Falwell family—about what they’ve experienced and why they don’t think he’s the right man to lead Liberty University or serve as a figurehead in the Christian conservative movement.

That’s a lot of sources, yes. But they’d have much more credibility if they had names attached to them. On-the-record sources with names attached have more skin in the game than those granted carte blanche to say whatever they want without their names attached. That’s basic Journalism 101 reality.

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Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

Is a new centrist coalition possible? Don’t underestimate the Vatican’s power In Italian politics

he Tiber River cuts through Rome in the shape of a serpent, splitting the ancient city in half.

On one side is the Vatican, home to the Catholic Church with the large dome of St. Peter’s Basilica looming over the city’s skyline. Directly across from the Vatican is Palazzo Montecitorio, seat of the Italian parliament. It is a place many Italians despise because it houses bickering politicians.

These two forces, within miles of each other, yet far apart in so many other ways, could come into renewed conflict over the coming weeks.

Italy’s government was plunged into chaos this past Tuesday when the nationalist-populist coalition that had struck fear across the European establishment fell apart. It means that Italians could be going to the ballot box once again in late October. It’s also a sign of how powerful the Catholic Church remains, mostly behind the scenes, in helping to determine the country’s political outcomes.

Matteo Salvini, leader of the right-wing party known as The League, triggered the political tsunami after he abandoned the anti-establishment Five Star Movement in an effort to force a no-confidence vote and provoke new elections. Ahead of the vote, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced that he was resigning, which officially brought the coalition to its knees.

The developments of the past week have left a power vacuum that will be filled either in the upcoming elections or if the Five Star Movement creates a ruling coalition with the center-left Democratic Party and several other smaller political factions. Salvini, who had served as the country’s interior minister and deputy prime minister, is pushing for a vote.

Salvini’s 40% approval rating — considered high for a country known for its very fractured political system — could very well get him elected prime minister. At the same time, traditional conservatives, led by billionaire-turned-politician Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia party, have seen support eroded as voters increasingly flock to the League.

That these political parties, largely rejected by the electorate last year, want to join forces and stop the anti-immigrant League should come as no surprise. Undoubtedly, the Catholic Church will be rooting for such an outcome, favoring a French-style centrist coalition.

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Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

Potty-mouthed president, the sequel: Politico discovers that Trump likes to use dirty words

That was kind of a delayed reaction. Hang on a moment, and I’ll explain what I mean.

Three weeks ago, I wrote a post noting that a side issue had emerged at President Donald Trump’s infamous “Send her back!” rally in Greenville, N.C.

The controversy, as I noted, involved Trump’s choice of words.

Here’s how I opened that post:

If I told you that Donald Trump uttered a curse word, it probably wouldn’t surprise you.

We are talking, after all, about the future president caught on videotape uttering the famous “Grab-em-by-the-*****” line.

But how might Trump’s evangelical supporters react if the leader of the free world took God’s name in vain at a nationally televised politically rally?

That’s the intriguing — at first glance — plot in a Charlotte Observer news story.

So what brings us back to that same, profanity-laced subject?

That would be Politico, which has taken the story national with a relatively in-depth piece headlined “‘Using the Lord’s name in vain’: Evangelicals chafe at Trump’s blasphemy.”

Here’s Politico’s overture:

Paul Hardesty didn’t pay much attention to President Donald Trump’s campaign rally in Greenville, N.C., last month until a third concerned constituent rang his cellphone.

The residents of Hardesty’s district — he’s a Trump-supporting West Virginia state senator — were calling to complain that Trump was “using the Lord’s name in vain,” Hardesty recounted.

“The third phone call is when I actually went and watched his speech because each of them sounded distraught,” Hardesty, who describes himself as a conservative Democrat, said.

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Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Populist wave continues: Nationalism and Catholicism collide in run-up to European elections

Italians will go to the ballot box on May 26 to elect members of the country’s delegation to the European Parliament.

The vote — part of elections held across the European Union — will be another litmus test regarding Italy’s two populist political parties and whether they can withstand challenges from the left. What this latest electoral test will also do is reveal Italy’s love-hate relationship with the Catholic church.

The country’s Democratic Party, which holds a majority of seats, is likely to go down in defeat like it did in last year’s national elections. That’s where two populist parties, the League, which is on the right, and the Five-Star Movement, on the left, joined forces since neither had gained a majority in parliament.

The result? Matteo Salvini, who leads the League party, could take his anti-immigration stances to Brussels if opinion polls prove correct. His hardline stance on the issue has put him at odds with the Catholic church in Italy as well as with Pope Francis, who has repeatedly spoken in favor of refugees seeking asylum in Western Europe.

Like the Brexit fiasco, this clash has also divided Italians, where a majority remain Roman Catholic. However, a Pew Research study found that only 27 percent of Italian adults consider themselves “highly religious,” putting them in 13th place among Europeans. Nevertheless, Pew also found that Italy remains in first place in Western Europe when it comes to Christians who attend services regularly at 40 percent. That’s higher than Ireland (at 34%) and the United Kingdom (at just 18 percent).

Salvini, like President Donald Trump in the United States, has made closing the borders a priority since becoming Deputy Prime Minister and Interior Secretary. Last summer, Salvini ordered that ships containing migrants not dock at Italian ports. As a result, they were diverted to Spain, angering the European Union and the Catholic church. 

The European elections have also allowed Salvini to take his message outside of Italy’s boot-shaped borders in an attempt to create a pan-populist movement that puts it on a collision course with the continent’s Christian roots and the message emanating from the Holy See these days.

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'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

'Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?' Let's see: Do people in pews matter in this equation?

So, GetReligion readers: Are any of you among the dozen or so people interested in American life and political culture who has not seen the famous Weekend Update appearance by Lt. Com. Dan Crenshaw on Saturday Night Live?

That face-to-face meeting with Pete Davidson included lots of memorable one-liners (and one really snarky cellphone ringtone), but one of Crenshaw’s first wisecracks carried the most political weight: “Thanks for making a Republican look good.”

No doubt about it: The new congressman’s popular culture debut has become a key part of his personal story and his high political potential.

Thus, that recent Politico headline: “Is Dan Crenshaw the Future of the GOP?”

The basic idea in this feature is that Crenshaw is a rising GOP star whose approach to politics is distinctly different than that of President Donald Trump and that the former Navy SEAL and Harvard guy is striving to maintain independence from the Trump machine. Then there is personal charisma. That SNL appearance is as much a part of his story as his eye patch.

Naturally, this means that more than half of the Politico article is about Trump and how Crenshaw is walking the fine line between #NeverTrump and #OccasionallyTrump.

Repeat after me: Politics is real. Politics is the only thing that is real.

However, since this is GetReligion I will once again note that certain facts of life remain important in this era of Republican politics. How do you write a major feature story about Crenshaw’s GOP political future without addressing his appeal to cultural and religious conservatives? As I wrote before:

… (It) is hard to run for office as a Republican in Texas (or even as a Democrat in large parts of Texas) without people asking you about your religious beliefs and your convictions on religious, moral and cultural issues. This is especially true when your life includes a very, very close encounter with death.

So let’s start here: If you were writing about Crenshaw and what makes him tick, would it help to know what he said, early in his campaign, during a church testimony that can be viewed on Facebook? The title is rather blunt: “How faith in God helped me never quit.” …

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Reflecting on prayer rugs and presidential tweets, Islamophobia and factual religion reporting ...

Reflecting on prayer rugs and presidential tweets, Islamophobia and factual religion reporting ...

Amid all the attention on the weekend’s big brouhaha, here’s a (sort of) religion story that you might have missed.

OK, maybe story is putting it a bit too strongly. Let’s try this instead: Here’s a religion-related item that might have escaped your attention.

I’m talking about President Donald Trump’s recent tweet in which he referenced a Washington Examiner report with this headline:

Border rancher: 'We've found prayer rugs out here. It's unreal'

Here is the lede:

LORDSBURG, N.M. — Ranchers and farmers near the U.S.-Mexico border have been finding prayer rugs on their properties in recent months, according to one rancher who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation by cartels who move the individuals.

The mats are pieces of carpet that those of the Muslim faith kneel on as they worship.

"There’s a lot of people coming in not just from Mexico," the rancher said. "People, the general public, just don’t get the terrorist threats of that. That’s what’s really scary. You don’t know what’s coming across. We’ve found prayer rugs out here. It’s unreal. It’s not just Mexican nationals that are coming across."

Her comments were part of a larger conversation about how many in the region believe migrants are coming to the U.S. illegally from all over the world, not just Central America.

A GetReligion reader shared the link with me and noted:

Got press because of the President's tweet. But no one asks the question, in the follow-up, “So What?’ What's wrong with prayer rugs?"

Good question.

My Googling didn’t turn up much in the way of straight reporting on the issue. But I did find several commentary and “fact check” pieces from major media delving into the question. Welcome to journalism, 21st century style!

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This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

This just in: Not all Christians agree on marriage and sex! This schism even affects their schools!

How did I miss this story?

Apparently, there is some kind of move afoot in elite media to push for the establishment of the Episcopal Church, or perhaps the United Church of Christ, as the state-mandated religion in the United States. Have you heard about this?

That’s one way to read the remarkable media response to Second Lady Karen Pence’s decision to return to the teaching at an ordinary evangelical Protestant school that attempts to defend ordinary conservative or traditional Christian doctrine on sexuality. (Yes, I am writing about this issue again.)

Why bring up Episcopalians? Well, Episcopal schools are allowed to have lifestyle and doctrinal covenants that defend their church’s evolving pronouncements blending liberal Christian faith with the editorial pages of The New York Times. Private schools — on left and right — get to define the boundaries of their voluntary associations.

These institutions can even insist that teachers, staff, parents and students affirm, or at least not publicly oppose, the doctrines that are the cornerstone of work in these schools. Try to imagine an Episcopal school that hired teachers who openly opposed the church’s teachings affirming same-sex marriage, the ordination of LGBTQ ministers, etc.

Now, after looking in that First Amendment mirror, read the top of the Times report on Pence’s heretical attempt to freely exercise her evangelical Protestant faith. The headline: “Karen Pence Is Teaching at Christian School That Bars L.G.B.T. Students and Teachers.

Actually, that isn’t accurate. I have taught at Christian colleges in which I knew gay students who affirmed 2,000 years of Christian moral theology or were willing to be celibate for four years. These doctrinal codes almost always focus on sexual conduct and/or public opposition to traditional doctrines. But back to the Gray Lady’s apologetics:

Karen Pence, the second lady of the United States, returned to teaching art this week, accepting a part-time position at a private Christian school that does not allow gay students and requires employees to affirm that marriage should only be between a man and a woman.

You could also say that the school requires its employees not to publicly oppose the teachings on which the school is built. That’s a neutral, accurate wording that would work with liberal religious schools, as well as conservative ones. Just saying. Let’s move on.

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