RNA

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Baptists and bishops: Must-read pair of weekend thinkers from Russell Moore and J.D. Flynn

Back in the religion-beat Good Old Days — roughly 1985-95 or hereabouts — religion-beat professionals in most American newsrooms could count on getting travel-budget money to cover at least two major events every year.

That would be the annual summer meeting of the national Southern Baptist Convention — prime years in the denomination’s civil-war era — and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Catholic bishops, where some progressives were wrestling with Pope St. John Paul II and there were rumblings about a massive sexual-abuse scandal among priests and bishops.

Along with meetings of the Religion Newswriters Association, these were the dates on the calendars when the pros could get together and talk shop over a few modest meals/drinks on the company dime.

Well, those meetings roll on, of course, and continue to make news. A few reporters get to attend these major events, since they represent newsrooms that are (a) still quite large, (b) led by wise editors or (c) both. Lots of others scribes (speaking for a friend) catch key moments via streaming video, smartphone connections and transcripts of major speeches and debates.

With that in mind, here is a double-dose of weekend think-piece material linked to these two events which will take place in the next week or so in Birmingham, Ala., and Baltimore. Some people get barbecue and some get crab cakes.

First up, an essay by a key SBC voice, the Rev. Russell Moore of Beltway land, entitled: “10 Things I Wish Everyone Knew About Southern Baptists.” There are some important topics early on (“Westboro Baptist Church isn’t one of us” and “There are some things in our past we’re ashamed of”) but the most important info comes near the end, in terms of topics currently in the news. For example:

#8. We’re more ethnically diverse than you might think.

Among the fastest growing demographics in the Southern Baptist life are African-American, Hispanic, and Asian-American congregations. The most vibrant of our churches often include many languages and ethnic groups.

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Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

Child sexual abuse by priests was top 2018 religion story: What about McCarrick and the bishops?

On July 16, the New York Times ran a blockbuster story with this headline: “He Preyed on Men Who Wanted to Be Priests. Then He Became a Cardinal.

The man at the heart of this story was Cardinal Theodore McCarrick — now ex-cardinal — long one of the most powerful Catholics in America and, some would say, the world. His spectacular fall led to a tsunami of chatter among religion-beat veterans because of decades of rumors about his private affairs, including beach-house sexual harassment and abuse of seminarians. Click here for a Julia Duin post on that.

There was another layer to all of this. McCarrick’s career was rooted in work in the greater New York City area and in Washington, D.C. He was one of the most important media sources among center-left Catholic leaders, so much so that a cluster of reporters linked to him became known as “Team Ted.”

Then came the brutal letters from the Vatican’s former U.S. ambassador, Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, claiming that a global network of Catholic powerbrokers — including Pope Francis — had helped hide McCarrick and had profited from his clout and patronage.

In August there was an explosion of news about the release of a hellish seven-decade grand-jury report about abuse in six dioceses in Pennsylvania.

The bottom line: 2018 was a year in which there were major developments in two big clergy sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic world. They were, of course, connected.

There was the old, ongoing story of priests abusing teens and children, starting with headlines in the early 1980s. Then there was the issue of how to discipline bishops, archbishops and even cardinals accused of abuse — a story in which all roads lead to Rome and, these days, Pope Francis.

Which story was more important in 2018? Which story centered on new, global developments? These questions are at the heart of this week’s “Crossroads” podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our discussion centered on the release of the Religion News Association’s annual list of the Top 10 religion-beat stories — in which the Pennsylvania grand-jury report was No. 1 and McCarrick and Vigano fell near the end of that list.

In my own list, McCarrick and Vigano were No. 1 and the Pennsylvania report was No. 4, in part because 97 percent of its crimes were pre-2002, the year U.S. bishops passed strict anti-abuse policies.

There was another strange — IMHO — twist in this. RNA members selected Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry as Newsmaker of the Year, after his long, progressive sermon at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Oddly, McCarrick’s name was not even included on the ballot.

It helps to see the lists.

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Religion News Service touts its new 19-member advisory board -- but what does it mean?

Religion News Service touts its new 19-member advisory board -- but what does it mean?


We’ve been tracking the ups and downs of life at Religion News Service ever since editor Jerome Socolovsky got unceremoniously dumped in April. That led, of course to the departure of two veteran staff members and then a popular columnist on the evangelical left who felt they could no longer work there plus the unexpected dismissal of two other staff.

After much withering critique from fellow religion writers, the powers-that-be at RNS have been shoring up support in the past three months, putting out a job announcement for a new editor-in-chief, asking for more freelancers, the hiring of a Sikh columnist and now an announcement of a new advisory board loaded with names of revered professionals and people with links to major journalistic institutions.

So I’ll run the 19 names of the new board members, from the press release, with my comments:

Dilshad D. Ali
Richmond, VA
Dilshad D. Ali is the Editor-in-Chief at Altmuslim and was previously Managing Editor for the Muslim portal at Patheos.com. She has spent the past two decades covering and coordinating coverage of American Muslim communities for a variety of media outlets, including Beliefnet and Islam Online, and was a 2015 White House Champion of Change honoree for her autism reporting/writing and advocacy work.

Ruby Bailey
Columbia, MO
Ruby Bailey is the executive editor of the Columbia Missourian and holds the Missouri School of Journalism’s Missouri Community Newspaper Management chair, working with community newspapers across the state to help improve their coverage and operations. She previously served as news editor at the Sacramento Bee and assistant metro editor at the Detroit Free Press.

Vikas Bajaj
New York, NY
Vikas Bajaj has been a member of the editorial board of The New York Times since 2012. Earlier, he was a correspondent in Mumbai and covered the financial crisis based in New York. He previously worked as a business, metro and religion reporter at The Dallas Morning News.

This is a really large board. How are these 19 people going to communicate with each other? It is also appropriate to consider issues of zip code.

Also, do they have any power whatsoever? 

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Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Another shoe drops: Jonathan Merritt calls it quits at Religion News Service

Let's see: In the Urban Dictionary, the phrase "Waiting for the other shoe to drop" is defined like this (with a joke thrown in for good measure, in the full text): "To await an event that is expected to happen, due to being causally linked to another event that has already been observed."

However, one gets the impression that the words "the other" in that phrase imply the existence of only one other show. It still sounds like the newsroom at Religion News Service contains lots of other shoes and some of them have yet to drop -- following the now infamous meltdown linked to the forced exit of former editor-in-chief Jerome Socolovsky, after clashes with publisher Tom Gallagher, who is best known for his opinion work on the Catholic left.

Lots of digital ink was spilled during that episode, including two lengthy GetReligion posts by our own Julia Duin. Check out, "RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)" and "RNS meltdown II: New media reports, new details and Lilly Endowment confirms $4.9 million grant."

Now there is this, from columnist and blogger Jonathan Merrett: "Why I am leaving Religion News Service after 5 years."

If you follow Merritt's work, you know that he is one of the most important journalistic voices who has emerged on the evangelical left -- both at RNS and at The Atlantic -- especially on issues linked to LGBTQ debates and women's rights.

Now, some of his critics would say the "post-evangelical" left, but I'm not sure that nuance is justified since it is almost impossible to define what the word "evangelical" means, these days. In terms of heritage, Merritt is best understood as a liberal Baptist. Yes, doctrinally liberal Baptists exist and there's a lot of history there. Ask Bill Clinton.

Anyway, Merritt has posted his take on what happened, at his own website. Here is that text:

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RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

RNS analysis: How America's one religion wire service melted down over a long weekend (Part I)

By now, news of the editorial bloodbath at Religion News Service is into its fourth day. The bare facts: A respected editor was ousted with apparently no warning or announced cause; two more veteran staff members quit within three days, two others had recently been let go and many others are looking to leave.

There’s a been a wave of postings on the Religion News Association’s members Facebook page. The topics: a campaign by current and former RNS employees to tell their story and –- in an unrelated matter –- a pending $4 million deal by which RNS material would be distributed by the Associated Press.

The conflict appears to have begun with two people: Tom Gallagher, the publisher of the Religion News Service and CEO of the Religion News Foundation, and Richard Mouw, retired president of Fuller Theological Seminary.

Before arriving at RNS in November 2016, Gallagher was a corporate lawyer and one-time volunteer with Mother Teresa’s Missionaries of Charity. He had been a columnist for the National Catholic Reporter since 2009. His detractors note that he has zero full-time, mainstream news experience (it’s certainly missing from his bio here). Also, the foundation manages RNS, which has about 100 media subscribers, and the Religion News Association, the global network of religion reporters. Its business office is housed at the University of Missouri and employees are paid through the financial structures of the university.

“I think we all knew when he was hired he didn’t have a ton of daily journalism experience,” Kimberly Winston Ligocki, a (now former) RNS national reporter based in California, told me. “We figured he would learn on the job. The thinking was he was hired more for his expertise with money and fundraising, which we needed.”

When I got ahold of Gallagher Wednesday morning, he refused comment on the RNS hirings and firings. When I asked him about his background, he said, “I have to run,” before hanging up.

When Gallagher came on board, RNS was already under the leadership of editor Jerome Socolovsky, a religion reporter for Voice of America and a multi-lingual correspondent for NPR, based in Spain. Socolovsky was hired in the fall of 2015.

This is a long, complicated story. But where did the conflict begin?

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Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Gender-neutral God story: Have we hit the point where wins on Episcopal left are not news?

Old people on the religion beat (my hand is raised) will remember the 1980s, back when the mainline Protestant doctrinal wars over sexuality started breaking into elite headlines -- big time.

Year after year, some kind of mainline fight over gender and sexuality would score high in the annual Religion Newswriters Association poll to determine the Top 10 stories. More often than not, the Episcopal Church led the way in the fight for feminism and eventually gay rights.

These national headlines would, of course, inspire news coverage at the regional and local levels. Some Episcopal shepherds went along and some didn't. All of that produced lots of news copy, no matter what Episcopalians ended up doing.

At one point, while at the Rocky Mountain News, I told Colorado's Episcopal leader -- the always quotable former radio pro Bishop William C. Frey -- that a few local religious leaders were asking me why the Episcopal Church kept getting so much media attention.

Frey laughed, with a grimace, and said that was a strange thought, something like "envying another man's root canal."

Eventually, however, the progressive wins in Episcopal sanctuaries stopped being news, at least in mainstream news outlets.

Take, for example, that recent leap into gender-neutral theology in the District of Columbia, an interesting story that drew little or no attention in the mainstream press. Thus, here is the top of the main story from the Episcopal News Service:

The Diocese of Washington is calling on the Episcopal Church’s General Convention to consider expanding the use of gender-neutral language for God in the Book of Common Prayer, if and when the prayer book is slated for a revision.
He? She?

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Religion writers in Los Angeles: Do religion (and religion news) need to be 'reimagined?'

Religion writers in Los Angeles: Do religion (and religion news) need to be 'reimagined?'

When you live in a near-rainforest climate as I do, the chance to spend a few January days in the sunshine is irresistible. That (plus the fact I got some scholarship money) is why I flew from Seattle to Los Angeles for a few days to attend “Reimagining Religion 2018: New Stories, New Communities,” a conference co-sponsored by the Religion News Association and the Religion Communicators Council.

I was one of 225 people (a mix of students, journalists, ministers, writers, activists and educators) who spent a day in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism building. We listened to a parade of folks tell us how or why so many religious groups are reinventing themselves or “reimagining” their faith in different ways. There was quite a bit devoted to how the “nones” -- people who are spiritual but practice no organized religion -- see the divine.

One problem covering the latter, said Jason DeRose, the West Coast bureau chief for NPR News, is that reporters don’t know how to ask questions to “nones” and the “nones” have not figured out how to articulate the answers.

Also: Are the “nones” a movement or lack of a movement? And is a lack of doctrine actually a kind of doctrine?

So there was a lot of thinking through of the what-will-the-future-of-faith-look-like question at this conference. Which made for some really intriguing panels plus some discussion on the present state of the religion beat. 

I arrived at the meeting 15 minutes late, thanks to the really nasty LA traffic on Interstate-5. (Must say, if you’re not a person who prays before coming to LA, you will become one.

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Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything

Looking at top stories of 2017: Sometimes it seems like religion haunts everything

It was in 1981, while I was doing my graduate project at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, that I had a long conversation with the late George Cornell of the Associated Press about the state of mainstream religion-news reporting. Cornell used to say that he was, basically, the AP religion reporter responsible for all of Planet Earth.

That was, I think, the first time I heard him work his way through a list of the wire service's Top 10 stories of a given year, noting that most of them contained some essential news "hook," or set of facts, linked to religion.

Now, Cornell was not claiming that each of these stories was a "religion" story, per se. He was saying that reporters couldn't understand what was happening in these events and trends without taking the religious angles seriously. He didn't say that these stories were "haunted" by "religion ghosts" -- to use the defining image of this weblog -- but that was basically what he meant. I've been thinking about his words for decades.

I remember that he said there were lots of events that were not, in and of themselves, "religion stories." Take, for example, the Roe v. Wade decision at the U.S. Supreme Court. For most editors, that was a "political story." But how could a reporter cover it without talking to  religious leaders and activists, on both sides? Another example: I wrote my Baylor graduate project about "civil religion" themes in the 1969 Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam.

Note that those were specific events, with complicated backstories. During this week's long "Crossroads" podcast, host Todd Wilken and I went into "extra innings," so to speak, talking about this year's Top 10 religion stories, according to a poll of members of the Religion News Association. Click here to tune that in.

We spent quite a bit of time discussing the No. 1 item, which was different in the RNA list and then in my own. Here is the top RNA item.

1. Conservative evangelicals gain strong representation in the Trump administration, notably with Vice President Mike Pence, and on the president's informal religious advisory body. Trump maintains strong grassroots support among white evangelicals, polls show.

Now, for me, Pence was a 2016 story. So was the strong old-guard Religious Right presence in Donald Trump's political base during the GOP primary season. So what was the "big event" linked to that 2016 story that made it the top individual "story" of 2017?

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Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Religion newswriters take note: Scholarly specialists are joining 'The Conversation'

Reporters and editors who specialize in religion should be aware of a young Web site -- TheConversation.com -- and regularly check out its section devoted to “Ethics + Religion.

This innovative site was launched in 2011 in Australia, 2012 in Britain, and then 2014 for the United States, with funding from 11 foundations and sponsorship by a constellation of 19 major U.S. universities (oddly, no Ivy Leaguers).  

The stated concept here is to provide “an independent source of news and views” that allows “university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public,” as opposed to writing articles for narrow academic journals. TheConversation hopes that its “explanatory journalism” from experts will “promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues.”

The editor for the ethics + religion section is Kalpana Jain, a former reporter for The Times of India who has been a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University.

The site can help reporters by offering three things: 

(1) Added angles and background on themes in the news.

(2) Ideas for new stories.

(3) Perhaps most important, names of knowledgeable scholars on specific topics to keep on file as needed in the future.

This is, of course, similar to the ReligionLink material offered by the Religion News Association. Of course, when it comes to solid sources of information, reporters want to bookmark as many as possible.

A good example of this new site’s resources is the detailed July 19 piece “Explaining the rise in hate crimes against Muslims in the U.S.”

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