Religion Dispatches

More thinking about the old religious left and its muddled future in America's public square

More thinking about the old religious left and its muddled future in America's public square

Here we go again.

If seems that the time is right for people to think about the religious left. In some cases, people are clearly yearning -- as they have for decades -- for some doctrinally liberal movement that is the grassroots equivalent of the Religious Right to rise up and help save the world from, well, the Religious Right.

You might recall that there was a whole tread of commentary online about this topic just the other day.

It started with a Reuters report that was perfectly summed up in the headline: " 'Religious left' emerging as U.S. political force in Trump era."

That led to a Religious Dispatches thinker by liberal scribe Daniel Schultz with this headline: "IS THE RELIGIOUS LEFT EMERGING AS A POLITICAL FORCE? NO." I left all the caps in that headline, since it kind of helps sum things up.

Now all kinds of things happened at that point, including my piece pointing readers to Sculltz, with this headline: "Rising force in American politics? Define the 'religious left' and give three examples." That led to a podcast and follow-up piece: "Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?"

Then there was a piece by Mark Tooley at the "Juicy Ecumenism" blog, as well as a podcast and transcript of a feature by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Albert Mohler Jr.

Finally, Schultz reacted to all of this disturbing acclaim by conservative writers (of various kinds) with a follow-up at Religion Dispatches that ran with this headline: "WHY THE RELIGIOUS LEFT ISN’T COMING TOGETHER, AND WHY IT MATTERS."

The basic idea is that the old religious left, which focused on the work of a predictable set of doctrinally liberal flocks, including progressive Catholics and Reform Jews, appears to be a thing of the past -- outside some elite leaders in politically blue zip codes. The big problem is that the old mainline flocks are not, shall be say, in growth mode. Why?

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Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

Yes, the religious left exists: Can you think of a logical person (Oprah) to serve as its leader?

If you asked a crowd of journalists to name two or three people who are the "faces" of the Religious Right, it's pretty easy to think of the names that would top the list.

The problem, of course, is that many of these people are either dead -- think the Rev. Jerry Falwell and Phyllis Schlafly -- or they have faded from the scene, other than the occasional headline-inducing sound bite (here's looking at you, the Rev. Pat Robertson).

This knee-jerk tendency to favor the old Religious Right guard was crucial during the 2016 campaign. Why? Many elite political-beat reporters -- religion-beat pros did much better -- failed to notice that, while Donald Trump won his share of endorsements among older religious conservatives (or, well, their children), most of the rising stars on the moral right wanted little or nothing to do with him, in terms of public support.

You see, there is a problem with simplistic American political labels, when you try to stick them on religious believers. They rarely fit. While traditional religious believers tend to agree on many doctrinal issues that have political implications (think abortion, gender, the meaning of marriage), they often disagree when it comes to political solutions to problems linked to poverty, race, foreign policy, military spending, immigration, the economy, etc.

You can see this most clearly when talking about ancient forms of Christianity. Are the U.S. Catholic bishops at home with the political left or with the right? That would be the right, on sexual morality, but the left on many other issues, from immigration to health care. Is Pope Francis liberal or conservative when you are talking about hot-button issues in American life? Where is he on gender and right-to-life issues, in contrast with economics and immigration?

"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken and I talked about all of this, and much more, when recording this week's podcast. Click here to tune that in.

Our news hook, however, was not on the cultural right. Instead, we were talking about my post critiquing a Reuters report about the religious left. The original Reuters report is here.

As always, it's hard to pin accurate political labels on biblical beliefs. There are political liberals who are pro-life. There are political conservatives who are strongly pro-abortion-rights. There are conservatives who totally oppose Donald Trump's perspectives on immigration and refugees. I could go on and on.

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Drama at Standing Rock: The conflict intensifies but the sacred goes unexplained

Drama at Standing Rock: The conflict intensifies but the sacred goes unexplained

Now that the Army Corps of Engineers have ordered the protestors at Standing Rock to leave by Dec. 5, expect to see a lot of people - including posses of veterans -- pour into this desolate area in central North Dakota in the next week. These protestors aren’t going to go quietly into the night. 

So this could get real interesting news-wise. On Black Friday, the Washington Post came out with a short history of why the Sioux and other tribes are so upset. However, the writer, who is a revered reporter well known for his work, did not mention a huge factor in this struggle.

See if you can guess what it is.

In the Dakota language, the word “oahe” signifies “a place to stand on.”
And that’s what the Standing Rock Sioux and its allies in the environmental and activist movements say they are doing: using Lake Oahe in North Dakota as a place to take a stand by setting up camps and obstructing roads to block the controversial $3.7 billion Dakota Access pipeline.
Their confrontations with police — who have responded with water cannons, pepper spray and rubber bullets — have steered attention to the 1,170-mile-long oil pipeline project and its owner, Energy Transfer Partners. But the real source of Native Americans’ grievance stretches back more than a century, to the original government incursions on their tribal lands. And those earlier disputes over their rights to the land, like the one over the Dakota Access pipeline, pitted the tribes against a persistent force, the Army Corps of Engineers.
The federal government has been taking land from Lakota and Dakota people for 150 years, tribal leaders say, from the seizure of land in the Black Hills of South Dakota after the discovery of gold in the 1870s to the construction of dams in the Missouri River that flooded villages, timberland and farmland in the Dakotas in the 1950s.

The reporter goes into that history for quite a few paragraphs, to which I want to add a bit of historical context.

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Weekend think piece: Questions to ask, when reporting on the state of a candidate's soul

Weekend think piece: Questions to ask, when reporting on the state of a candidate's soul

Around and around and around we go, with the ongoing chatter about the state of Citizen Donald Trump's soul ("Crossroads" podcast here) and the whole "is he or is he not a you know what kind of Christian" talk.

However, I have good news for all who are frustrated by all of this, including the fact that the Trump drama has offered a chance for journalists to laugh at people who are eternally serious when it comes to discussions of heaven and hell, sin and salvation.

One of the America's most respected scholars on matters of religion and the press has weighed in with some thoughts on this situation. I've known Stewart Hoover ever since our paths crossed soon after his doctoral studies. To make a long story short, he was very kind, at one point, to call some attention to my own University of Illinois graduate project (the short version in The Quill is here) digging into why journalists struggle to cover religion news. Anyone who has taught a college class on this subject knows his work.

Thus, this weekend's religion-news think piece comes from Hoover and can be found at ReligionDispatches.org. The headline: "Hillary's faith, Trump's conversion: Two questions journalists need to ask."

Here is a key part of the overture. It's almost like he's saying that many mainstream journalists, you know, kind of don't "get" religion.

Somewhere in each reporter’s notebook is a tab marked “religion.” The problem is that, unlike most of the other topics they’ll be reporting on, their understanding of religion is a mixture of broad bromides about the nature of religion in American life, mixed perhaps with entirely subjective notions of religion born of their own personal experience with it.

Among journalistic “broad truths:” religion used to be important to Americans, but isn’t anymore, except in rural areas and the Midwest and for those pesky evangelicals and mass-attending Catholics and of course the great and noble tradition of African-American Protestantism. What do you do about a candidate’s religion? She or he must have one, of course, but it doesn’t matter what it is -- except when it does.

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Flashback 2015: Revealing Top 10 lists from Religion Dispatches and Patheos Evangelical

Flashback 2015: Revealing Top 10 lists from Religion Dispatches and Patheos Evangelical

So far, your GetReligionistas have shared quite a few Top 10 story lists marking the end of the year -- like here, here, here and here, with an attached podcast here. These have ranged from the Religion Newswriters Association list to that of the Associated Press. I found it interesting (commentary here) that the top AP story -- period, as in the top story in the whole world -- was a religion news story, but that wasn't the top story in the RNA poll. Go figure.

Obviously, I find these lists fascinating, in part because they show us (a) just how complex the world of religion news really is and (b) the unique points of view (which can, in some cases become biases) that affect how scribes and editors see the world of religion news. There is much to learn in these lists, both for news professionals and news consumers.

In the next couple of days I will be posting a number of additional lists covering religion news in 2015, from a variety of different points of view.

Please let me know if I missed one or two that you would like to see posted.

Let's start with the Religion Dispatches list of the "Ten Religion Stores That Went (Mostly) Missing in 2015." The whole idea here, of course, is that these are stories that, from the point of view of Peter Laarman, SHOULD have received more coverage in the past year.

Read them all. But here are a few that caught my eye:

2. The struggle of the Black Church to come to terms with #BlackLivesMatter.
In some cities there has been visible conflict between Old Guard pastors (many of whom still identify with the 20th century civil rights movement) and the New Guard of fearless youth, many of whom are not shy about showing contempt for the pastors.

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You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

You have $1.25 million: Who gets that check if the goal is basic, balanced religion-news reporting?

Here at the Washington Journalism Center, the full-semester program I lead at the DC center for the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, we have a number of sayings that are repeated over and over that they turn into journalism mantras. I imagine that will be true when we reboot the program next year in New York City at The King's College.

One of these sayings goes like this: Everybody in this city knows more stories than you do. I also like to stress this: The most important skill in journalism is the ability to accurately state the views of someone with whom you disagree. And then there's one that is discussed here frequently, in this Keller-istic, Twitter-driven age in which the digital line between newswriting and editorializing is often quite faded and hard to spot: Opinion is cheap; information is expensive.

Then there is another WJC mantra that moves us closer to some news sure to intrigue those interesting in religion-beat coverage in the mainstream press. This one isn't very snappy, but it's a concept that is crucial for young journalists to grasp. Here it is: In the future there will be no one dominant business model (think newspaper chains built on advertising, mixed with the sale of dead-tree pulp) for mainstream journalism, but multiple approaches to funding the creation of information and news.

I warned you that it wasn't short and snappy.

Obviously, one of the crucial emerging models right now is the growing world of non-profit and foundation-driven journalism.

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Godbeat news: A funding boost at USC's Knight Chair and a new religion writer posting in Louisville

Godbeat news: A funding boost at USC's Knight Chair and a new religion writer posting in Louisville

Mostly, GetReligion focuses on critiquing media coverage of religion.

Occasionally, we update readers on important developments on the Godbeat. The following news — which we are a bit behind in sharing — falls into that category.

Via a release from the University of Southern California:

Comprehensive reporting efforts on the changing landscape of American religious practice and theological thought will see significant expansion in 2015 as a result of $1.25 million in grants awarded to the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism by Lilly Endowment Inc. and the Henry Luce Foundation.
Diane Winston, holder of the Knight Chair in Media and Religion at USC Annenberg, will direct the effort.
The grants will fund a new editor and freelance-reporting budget for Religion Dispatches, the award-winning online journalism magazine based at USC Annenberg. The magazine is one element in the Knight Chair’s ongoing effort to advance specialized reporting.
Lilly Endowment awarded $1 million for a project titled “Remapping American Christianities” and the Henry Luce Foundation awarded $250,000 to pursue “Innovating Coverage of Theology.”
In addition to funding freelance reporting and a new editor, the grants will allow Winston to convene thought leaders who will help chart new directions to cover territory overlooked by other websites and print publications, she said.
The grants also will support greater collaboration between editors of Religion Dispatches and the Knight Chair with students at USC Annenberg.
“The next generation of reporters should understand the importance of religion in the daily lives of Americans and learn how ordinary people look for and find meaning, identity and purpose,” Winston said.

To Winston's comment, we offer a hearty "Amen!"

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Master of my domain

… (T)he best persuaded of himself, so cramm’d, as he thinks, with excellencies that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him.

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Scared 'journalist' hides in a church, lives to write about it

A few weeks ago, a Twitter post from Tim Townsend, the award-winning religion writer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, caught my attention.

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